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Algorithmic Bias / Social Media / Trans Experiences

Shadowbanning is a Thing — and It’s Hurting Trans and Disabled Advocates

Hashtags help me reach my trans and disabled communities. However, because I was shadowbanned, my content no longer shows under the hashtags I use.

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Written by Julian Van Horne .

The day started out like any other day. I slowly stretched out of bed, took care of my service dog’s needs, and then made my way to the computer to start work. I popped onto my email and then Instagram. I scrolled a bit and went to click the famous little red heart on a fellow influencer’s photo. Suddenly an aggressive message shot into frame:

screenshot of message from instagram saying that the submitted post was blocked

I said aloud, “Um, yeah I think you did make a mistake.” How was this possible? I had not even been on Instagram at all that day, and it was my first tap on a photo. Of course, I hit the “Tell us” button to notify Instagram that they indeed had made a mistake. I was not sure what to think of what was going on. I checked to see if I could still view my direct messages. Sure enough, I could see them. I was not, however, expecting to see an influx of panicked messages from my followers telling me they could no longer see my posts in the hashtags.

Suddenly it all came crashing down: I had been shadowbanned. Shadowbanning is essentially when a social media platform hides one’s content from the algorithm with tactics such as making them invisible in the hashtags, banning liking/commenting, or continuously censoring their content. Instagram has denied that Shadowbanning is a thing — but many of us aren’t buying it.

As a disabled transgender advocate, I use my Instagram account, @thedisabledhippie, as a platform to express my mission through writing, life coaching, and modeling. While I initially blogged about my life as a trans Ehlers Danlos Syndrome patient, I now also regularly discuss issues that people with more privileges do not consistently address. I use my platform to educate others on the struggles I experience, stand up for my rights, and speak on bigotry like ableism and transphobia.

Hashtags help me reach my trans and disabled communities. However, because I was shadowbanned, my content no longer shows under the hashtags I use. Without these tags, individuals have no idea how to reach me. Instagram has also taken to disabling my account from commenting and liking others’ photos on multiple days out of the week, as well as to blocking my ability to promote photos.

picture of author, shirtless, in wheelchair with trans flag towel

Oddly enough, in the two weeks leading up to my shadowban, I was interviewing influencers and conducting research for an article on unwarranted shadowbanning. I had previously been in contact with other Instagrammers on the subject, and we were putting pieces together that seemed to spell out discrimination. They and I have one thing in common: we are all a part of minority groups. Alex Dacy (a.k.a. @wheelchair_rapunzel) had her Kim Kardashian remake photo removed while Kim’s stayed put; Elizabeth Bert’s breast cancer awareness post (which showed zero visible nipple) was removed; Brianna Valois (@thelaughingstoma) saw her ostomy being censored left and right.

Alex Dacy’s removed photo, alongside the Kim Kardashian inspo post.
Alex Dacy’s removed photo, alongside the Kim Kardashian inspo post.

All the evidence was stacking up — a disproportionate amount of cisgender, white, able-bodied, and famous individuals are not being shadowbanned for similar content to what we posted. (For reference, you can read Instagram’s vague, irregular, and contradictory guidelines here.)

side by side comparison of an instagram post without censorship and with censorship
Brianna’s ostomy post, before and after being censored.

I’ve played by Instagram’s rules to get where I am now. Yet, after all the hard work I’ve done bringing intersectional activism between the trans and disabled community, and the career I’ve built—which wouldn’t have been possible without the platform—I’m becoming invisible. My opportunities have been halted. When you’re part of multiple minority groups, like if you’re trans and disabled, your prospects can seem grim. I have a chance to make something of my trials and tribulations, but Instagram is trying to take that away.

I work side-by-side with my best friend and emotional translator (as we joke), Ariel, on tackling a lot of these issues at hand. As an attempt to push back after my shadowban, we posted this photo on his Instagram to see what would happen:

screenshot of instagram post of two people in bed in their underwear with their backs to the camera

The very same day, Ariel was blocked from all hashtags. It’s intriguing because the context of the photo discusses our difficulty finding Pride merch at the height of Pride month. There is no nudity or “inappropriate” content—whatever that means anymore.

What I want to understand is this: How does Instagram’s algorithmic moderating be so smart that it can distinguish my underwear-clad behind from that of a cis, able-bodied woman as “inappropriate” within minutes, yet it can’t seem to identify a child’s murdered body for several hours?

Every account that has been mentioned here has touched the lives of many people who used to feel as alone as I did before discovering Instagram. When I was very young, I never saw disabled and trans individuals like me. I never saw representation. Imagine all the young individuals who want the same thing that I did—except they will be unable to find their existing community due to Instagram’s suppressive tactics.

I fear we are seeing a decline in all artistic and educational content due to its “sensitivity.” Silencing and censorship tactics have been used for generations. It will seem like a slow burn at first, in hopes that no one notices. This has historically been the case in the way that shadowbanning has affected sex educators and pole athletes. Before you know it, it’ll all be gone.

I have a tenaciously motivated personality. I only feel purpose and drive when I’m doing something for the greater good. This small bump in the road won’t stop me from getting my message across. As long as there is still advocacy work to do, you can count me in.

By the way, this was my cheeky response to the shadowban:

Screenshot of instagram post of two people in their underwear with backs to camera on bed. Text overlay reads "eveeryone's ass or no ones ass"


About the Author

Julian Van Horne is a model, writer, life coach, and influencer who works hard to promote intersectional activism between the LGBTQ+ and disability communities. He blogs about his life as a trans masculine patient with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, as well as his service dog Atlas and wife Jaina Van Horne.

Follow on IG: @thedisabledhippie


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