What Instagram’s Pole Dance Shadowban Means For Social Media

If you follow a pole dancer on Instagram or are friends with one on Facebook, chances are you’ve seen she is fuming about the shadowban this week. Pole dance Facebook groups have been set alight with anger, and even the biggest pole stars have been complaining through their profiles. Why? Because the majority of pole dance hashtags seems to now have been deemed “inappropriate” by the ‘Gram. Even being a womxn who works out is inappropriate for Instagram, considering searching for #femalefitness now returns a sneaky: “Recent posts from #femalefitness are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” So I’ve put my sociologist / cyber-criminologist / former PR hat on – that is what I do and what I used to do for a living, after all – to reflect on what the latest developments in Instagram’s sexist pole dance shadowban gate mean not only for the pole dance community, but for users as a whole.

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Picture: The Black Light Sydney Censored Sticker: Exotic Cancer

Disclaimer: this post is about what the shadowban and censorship mean for social media. I spoke to Instagram today about the apparent increase in the shadowban of pole dancing hashtags – read what they had to say here.

The Shadowban Updates

I really didn’t want to be writing about the Instagram shadowban this week. I feel like I’m turning into one of those people who respond: “SHADOWBAN!” when you ask them how they are. In Italian we say: “Paganini [the famous violinist] non ripete,” Paganini doesn’t give encores. I’m not a talented violinist, but even if I hate repeating myself, it felt a bit stupid not to write about the shadowban with this week’s recent developments.

I have noticed drops in engagements connected to my pole posts more than once, and I spend more time than I care to admit trying to break the shadowban’s cycle. As a self-published writer looking for an agent and a blogger and performer trying to grow her profile, Instagram is a key part of my PR strategy. This week, I saw a variety of pole dancers I follow post either on their Insta or flood pole dancing Facebook groups with updates about which pole dance hashtags had been banned. TL; DR: A LOT of them.

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ATTENTION POLE DANCERS! There seems to have been a massive “cleanse” on instagram and pole dancers have been deemed dirty and inappropriate… or as Instagram puts it we don’t “meet Instagram’s community guidelines”. There has been lots of talk about shadownbans lately but this purge of hashtags is hard to mistake as being targeted towards pole dancers. If you use a banned hashtag your posts will not show up in your intended feeds. If you continue to use banned hashtags it can result in your account being shadowbanned overall so that regardless of the hashtags used your posts won’t show up in your followers feeds. This is a list of some of the banned hashtags that I just quickly compiled this morning after seeing @polelols post about pdayesha being banned. The sad part is that these are many of our most popular hashtags and an integral part of OUR community! THESE HASHTAGS HAVE BEEN BANNED: * pddeadlift * Pdayesha * Pdstaticpole * Poledancing * Poledancer * Polesportorg * Unitedbypole * Poledancenation * Pdtwistedgrip * Pdironx * Sundaybumday * Pdshouldermount * Doublespole * Pddoubles * Pdcombo * Pdspinningpole * Pdtrick * Pdleghang * Pdoutsideleghang I’m sure there are many more than this. Be sure to check your hashtags before posting them. Tag your pole babes and mommas to alert them of this instagram development. So what now? Do we start a new system since our beloved PD system (started by @michelleshimmy ) seems to be under attack. I know @polefree saw the writing on the wall that this was coming and has been working on creating a new platform for us to share and develop our community. Thoughts? @poledancenation @poledancersofig @polesportorg @upartists

A post shared by Elizabeth ~ Instructor (@elizabeth_bfit) on

This is a problem for us because Instagram hasn’t only grown our reach and given us a platform to express ourselves – it’s an integral part of our training. We experiment with moves, combos and choreographies because we see fellow dancers use them. We buy products because fellow pole dancers wear them or use them. Whole brands in the pole niche depend on the ‘Gram to make their money. Instructors and performers use it to get bookings. It’s not just a recreational thing for us.

Michelle Shimmy – one of the most famous pole dancers ever – wrote this:

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Hey @instagram – we pole dancers of the world are really disappointed to see that all pole dance related hashtags are now banned hashtags, and that even hashtags that use “pd” at the start like pddeadlift or pdayesha have also been banned @polelols . We use this naming system so we can find pole skills to learn from each other and to train. There is nothing profane or pornographic about what we do. Pole dance is skilful, artistic, entertaining, it can be fitness-based, it can be performance-based and yes it can be sexy but it does NOT violate @instagram’s terms of use or community standards. Banning pole dance related hashtags makes it really hard for small businesses in the industry to function, and it makes it difficult for our pole dance community to interact. We see an alarming trend of policing female bodies on instagram, a trend that doesn’t seem to affect male bodies in the same way. As @crystalgibsonpole pointed out, femalefitness is a banned hashtag, but malefitness isn’t. In my discovery feed, I see naked male torsos, but women must be fully clothed to feature in the discovery feed. You are penalising the female body as though it is in some way “inappropriate” to be female and to exist on instagram. Women, goddess, curvy and girls have also been banned hashtags (and probably still are, I’m not sure). If you are a pole dancer, check out @elizabeth_bfit post which includes a list of banned hashtags to avoid. I’m sad to see that sunday bumday, which is a body positivity movement, has also been banned. @instagram – sort it out. This policing of women’s bodies is not ok. Update your algorithms. Use your brains. This is beyond stupid. Also, while you’re at it – stop policing stripper hashtags, body positivity hashtags, sex worker hashtags – and anything else that is perfectly legal but somehow conflicts with your nonsensical, vaguely defined, puritanical view of “community standards”. If you’re a pole dancer, please feel free to repost this if you agree 💖

A post shared by michelleshimmy (@michelleshimmy) on

FOSTA/SESTA

According to many pole dancers and sex workers, this has to do with the FOSTA/SESTA bills. Sass and Clacks explains that the bills were brought into law in the United States last year to fight sex trafficking online. Thing is, they do nothing of the sort, but they create an exception to a crucial bit of internet lawSection 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act – which stated that:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This means that social media platforms started getting scared. While with Section 230 internet service providers and platforms couldn’t be penalised for what their users might create, with FOSTA/SESTA they could now get done for hosting adverts for prostitution and consensual sex work.

So while the goal was to make it harder for sex traffickers to advertise on platforms such as social media and Craiglist, now sex workers who used to thrive through the internet – arguably a safe space to vet clients considering the violence sex workers can be victims of IRL. Swipe through this post by Jacq The Stripper to read more about why SESTA/FOSTA are unhelpful.

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From the succinct and always eloquent @zbornak_ : “there’s probably something more eloquent that i could say but i don’t have it in me right now. the fact is that conflating trafficking & sex work helps no one and hurts everyone. sesta/fosta has literally and unequivocally increased danger to actual trafficking victims and sex workers alike. it’s a legislative failure that infringes on the first amendement rights of every adult in the country. it’s suppression of economic freedom for the most marginalised of us in a capitalist hell. sesta/fosta is responsible for increased violence and instability in the lives of the already subjugated. it’s garbage and every single politician that endorsed it should be forced to answer for their contribution.” #LetUsSurvive #housingnothandcuffs #decriminalizewomen

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What’s This Got To Do With Pole Dancers?

Pole dancers use many hashtags that strippers or sex workers use, and have therefore been caught in the Instagram ‘cleanse’. As a matter of fact, the algorithm, which now demotes ‘vaguely inappropriate’ content (read: female skin) has now also been targeting hashtags like #femalefitness, while #malefitness or #malemodel are still allowed to thrive and live their best lives on the ‘Gram.

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Screenshot by Jordan Kensley
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Screenshot by Jordan Kensley

So what does this all mean for pole dancers – and for Instagram users as a whole, considering how many are now being affected? My uncomfortable truths below. Sorry for the sociological trip in advance.

Social Media Platforms Aren’t The Freedom of Speech Godsend We Thought They’d Be

I remember the general feeling about social media in 2011, when I first moved to the UK to start my journalism degree and started blogging. It was just after the Arab Spring, the time of the Phone Hacking Scandal, the London Riots. A time where social media was being hailed by academic papers and journalists alike as ‘the new public square’, a way to give voice to the voiceless. That internet utopia seems so far away after Cambridge Analytica and all that jazz.

It’s not just the trolls and online abuse, the main topic of my PhD and an issue which, ironically, isn’t being dealt with properly due to fears of censorship and limiting freedom of expression. It’s the fact that social networking platforms are increasingly being viewed as a grey area, a growing beast that it’s hard to control and even define.

I recently read a paper by Gillespie talking about how convenient and misleading the word ‘platform’ is, as it can help social media companies position themselves favourably in front of different audiences. Take YouTube for example:

“YouTube must present its service not only to its users, but to advertisers, to major media producers it hopes to have as partners and to policymakers. The term ‘platform’ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially-produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral,” (Gillespie, 2010: 348).

Gillespie, T.L. 2010. “The Politics of Platforms.” New Media & Society, Vol. 12(3): 347-364.

For Gillespie, the term ‘platform’ misrepresents social networks’ power, but it’s handy for them: it is “specific enough to mean something, and vague enough to work across multiple venues for multiple audiences.”

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Picture: Georgia De Lotz via Unsplash

A platform can make you feel empowered to have a voice, it seems neutral, it’s different from traditional media companies and doesn’t share their responsibilities. As Gillespie writes: “Unlike Hollywood and the television networks, who could be painted as the big bad industries, online content seems an open world, where anyone can post, anything can be said. YouTube was distinctly not going to play the role of gatekeeper, nor even curator: it would be mere facilitator, supporter, host” so that it can avoid responsibility for the content posted on it.

Except that, as we’ve seen with FOSTA/SESTA, laws can be implemented in a way that forces social networking platforms to alter their services. And as a business, it’s only natural that social media companies will want to 1) keep making money 2) avoid being dragged in potentially costly legal disputes 3) avoid any trouble. So, instead of being your “platform” to have a voice that gets you noticed, it’s actually a tool of the big business it initially didn’t seem to be.

I must confess I’m not too hopeful for this to change. When companies become IPO materials and end up turning out the profits Facebook and Instagram turn out, their stakes are too high not to try to cover their backs. Plus, constant changes in the algorithm lamented by bloggers of all kinds seem to point towards Instagram wanting you to actually pay for exposure… hardly the libertarian force some thought it would be.

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Screenshot by Jordan Kensley

The Pole Dancing Hashtags Shadowban Might Finally Make Pole Dancers Acknowledge – And Fight With – Sex Workers

For me, sex work is work. I would like sex workers to be recognised as workers with rights so that they can work safely. So for me, when sex workers use social media to promote themselves, it’s not a problem.

However, this opinion isn’t shared by everybody, and laws made that affect sex workers often end up, like FOSTA/SESTA, in a snowball effect of the law of unintended consequences. And it’s now affecting even those who may not have wanted to talk about sex workers’ rights.

I’m not a huge fan of reading: “We are not dirty” or “Pole dancing is not dirty” in shadowban complaints. Don’t get me wrong, not all pole dancing is dirty – some of it is contemporary, classic, athletic, you name it. I’m certainly not feeling dirty (spiritually) while trying to do a bloody deadlift into an Ayesha while my armpits are sweating and I pull constipated faces.

But pole dancing comes from stripping, and I love doing it because it’s dirty. When I dance, I’m dirty. Actually, I’m not even dirty. I’m duhrrrrty, and I’ve been duuuuhrty since Xtina showed up with those assless chaps in the Dirrty video when I was 11.

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When I started pole dancing I did it for sport, but I could have chosen gymnastics or ballet (and failed at them, due to my lack of class, coordination or to the fact that I don’t point my fucking toes). But I stuck with pole because I liked the fun, sexy element of it. I appreciate this is not everybody’s style or taste, but with the latest developments, even #nOtAsTrIpPeR pole dancers are having to come to terms with the fact that pole dancing does come from stripping.

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Pole dancers that have so far been dying to distance themselves from strippers might now have to suck it up and see what censorship means. The shadowban might mean they need to start fighting with their stripper sisters instead of appropriating their aesthetic, moves and songs with #notastripper hashtags. PolePositive writes:

Pole dance might still be seen as taboo to the general public, but recreational pole dancers still enjoy a layer of protection and respect that oftentimes strippers, who initially developed the sport, don’t have (hence the #NotAStripper hashtag that still floats around the internet).

Oftentimes, pole dance hobbyists get to wear a stripper’s uniform and dance erotically onstage while receiving praise from their friends for doing something that’s “cool,” “edgy,” “artistic,” and “mysterious,” while strippers, and sex workers altogether, still have to argue the legitimacy of their work.

Whether or not erotic style is your thing, it’s important to be aware of this juxtaposition and not further contribute to it. One way to do that is by being a better ally to sex workers—especially in these dire times of need.

PolePositive

Why does this matter? If you’re not doing it to help a fellow human, think about how it could affect you, your pole sisters and the studios you train at. Filth Army showed a possible – if, hopefully, just dystopian – scenario in which the ban can translate into IRL events. A recent scandal saw ‘feminists’ film sex workers at work in a strip club in the attempt to close that strip club. What would happen if that translated into the closure of pole studios?

As an extension to the stripper and pole dance shadowban, now it looks like sex-positive, queer and feminist brands can’t use the ad function on platforms like Instagram because their content is viewed as sexually suggestive. This is having an impact on businesses and their livelihoods, and I can easily see it being extended to ads by photographers, models, bikini brands, hosiery brands and so on. As I said, snowball effect. 

There’s Worse Than The Shadowban

Your account can be taken down from Instagram if enough people report it. I spoke to model and co-founder of ComeCurious (a popular sex education vlog I recently collaborated with) Reed Amber about her experience with this. Reed recently got both her accounts (her original profile with 64K followers and her back-up) back after Instagram suspended them multiple times.

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I sold my soul to instagram ⚰️ I admit it, even though i know what damage social media does to self esteem, i still find my self getting stressed, anxious and overwhelmed by all its evil. I still catch myself scrolling late at night wishing that me in that photo, wishing i had more followers IT ACTUALLY SICKENING. I thought i was doing well till my this account and my back up was deleted but alas as soon as i got it back i became obsessive again and feeling a constant need to post for my followers and catch up. I’m sure like most of us you felt disconnected yesterday because nothing would load for a few hours, that’s how bad it is! I saw many posts and memes that joked about it 😅 Many of us have noticed a huge drop in engagement on instagram, including big ‘ig safe’ accounts that are in the millions of followers. This is because IG/Facebook are pushing you to pay for post promotion, so dont feel like you’re the only one being targeted, because i definitely did! IG are also trying to slowly kick out accounts they deem as inappropriate, like completely safe sex educational and sex worker accounts so please be vigilant ⚠️ Try your best not to feel guilt or shame for feeling the constant pull with social media. Its literally its job to work out a way to suck you in and hold you there, just like gambling. Someone actually gets paid to think up new ways of keeping you on social media for longer! 🥀 Ive noticed a huuuge improvement in my mental health and sleep when i don’t use my phone in bed. Really hard to do but so worth it when you’re strict with yourself 🌺 Please remember, your followers and likes don’t equate to your worth. You are just a valued as someone with no social media at all 💌 Join our movement #curiousforreality where we encourage people to add this to any post that shows their true self! @comecurious #realitydisclaimer this image has not been manipulated in any way except for sticking them together. This is my body posing and relaxed! #instagramvsreallife #instavsreality #igvsreality

A post shared by Reed Amber (@reedamberx) on

Since Reed posted on Twitter about her account being suspended by Instagram, she was linked to other accounts campaigning against account removals. She says this affects sex workers in particular, because even if they’re posting perfectly safe content, their accounts – and she says this includes women and men – are being taken down.

Reed says that a contact at Facebook who helped her get her profile back told her the account was taken down for “sexual solicitation”. She hypothesises that’s because she recruits cam models for Studio66 (whose account was also taken down) via Instagram. You can get reported by anyone, which doesn’t help you understanding what you can and can’t post: it could be a hater, an ex, an anti-sex work campaigner like the incel that reported Exotic Cancer, who seems to be on a crusade to report sex workers and who might have targeted Reed, too.

In the process of getting her account back, Reed learnt that a profile stays suspended until someone reviews the case. The person who helped her get her account back worked at Facebook, and appealed internally multiple times through the “Friends of Facebook” or “Friends of Instagram” function, allowing for appeals to be seen quicker. Yet, many users are seeing their account gone for much longer, and some don’t know whether they’ll get it back.

Not All Asses Are Created Equal

And I don’t only mean this in size or shape. Celebrities post pictures of asses and near-nudes all the time, yet I doubt anyone’s gonna go and shadowban Kim K’s Instagram. Which means, my friends, that not all asses are created equal.

If you’re as obsessed with Cardi B as I am, you have probably seen some of her saucy pics. I am choosing Cardi as an example because 1) I love her 2) a lot of people in the pole dance and stripping community love her because she makes no mystery of her past as a stripper 3) her songs are absolute pole dance bangers.

Now, I clearly don’t have Cardi’s ass – not many of us do – and as a fan I love seeing her updates. But I am pretty sure that if I were to post pictures like hers, the day after my engagement would drop and that I’d be affected by the shadowban again. Which means that the ‘Gram is aware and bearing with celebrity bodies – because audiences have an interest in them – but it is censoring sex- and body-positive accounts where people are trying their best to love themselves and spread the love to their community.

This shows that a platform that was initially born to give people a voice is also becoming a platform for the elite – influencers, celebrities – who make the platform more money than small movements with smaller followings. One more example of how the social media utopia didn’t deliver.

Also, please don’t take this as me wanting Instagram to censor Cardi. Every time she deletes her account because of haters my life is a little bit less entertaining. It’s just quite interesting that the platform that helped her build a profile for herself and that is promoting her movie about strippers doesn’t support people that still strip, sex workers, sex educators, pole dancers, erotic artists etc.

Getting Noticed As Performers / Instructors Might Become Harder Than It Was

One of my favourite pole dance performers, Kitty Velour, once said growing your following is a great way of getting noticed as a pole dance performer (and this is probably valid for instructors as well).

Well, looks like the performing world is going to get a lot less easy to break into if you have to move your videos and/or portfolios elsewhere due to shadowbans and account deletions…

With Instagram now hiding likes, some people like PR expert Renae Smith from The Atticism are welcoming the death of the influencer model, and the impossibility of using only social media as a growth strategy. This means we’ll have to market ourselves more IRL, send more emails, send our content privately and get noticed through PR. Seems a bit old-fashioned, but maybe the heyday of social media as we know it really is over.

Instagram Might Be Digging Its Grave With The Shadowban

When tumblr recently banned all NSFW content, there was an uproar and many people left the platform – so much that Pornhub offered to buy it to reinstate the saucy stuff. Will Instagram be headed the same way?

It looks like that on the pole dance side. PoleFree promises to be a one-stop shop for all things pole, censorship and shadowban free. So how do they plan to overtake Instagram’s monopoly of pole dance content?

Sarah Scott, co-founder of PoleFree, wrote in an update to subscribers today:

“Pole Free is going to be so much more than Facebook or Instagram – and it will be community-run, which means you can wear whatever you want and dance to whatever you like, however you like, without the risk of being censored.”

Sarah Scott

To fight the shadowban, many pole dancers are also moving their content to pastures new, like OnlyFans or Patreon. The community is upset and mobilising to try and contest the shadowban and censorship. However, Instagram would have to change massively for our words to be taken on board.

The Business of Social Media – And Particularly Instagram – Needs To Change

The way social media platforms are run has to change if they care about their users’ wellbeing and enjoyment of their product – and about keeping the platforms alive.

  1. Human Rights. In my PhD, I talk about how human rights law and a balancing act between censorship and freedom of expression are needed to judge whether a post has to be taken off. Does it infringe or threaten anybody’s human rights or pose a threat to someone’s security? If not, I’d say keep it on – and if anything, add a NSFW/ 18+ content filter to it as suggested by Exotic Cancer in my interview with her.
  2. Clarity. Social media platforms need to be clearer about how their algorithms work, about what gets engagement and what is banned why. It’s puzzling that algorithm changes are so frequent, so hard to keep track of and still go unexplained by Instagram. Often, when you appeal for content to be reposted, you get no explanation about why it’s being taken down. When I sent my questions to Instagram, I got no answer as to how the algorithm works. This wouldn’t be feasible with any other business model: imagine using a service and not being told how it works and how to use it to make the most out of it. You wouldn’t buy it. Instagram is thriving off people’s need for exposure and attention and isn’t explaining anything.
  3. Pair algorithms with many humans. The idea of decency differs from person to person, and moderation should be layered. Because Instagram won’t talk about how its moderation works, we don’t know according to whose sense of morality and decency posts are being taken off – and according to many people whose accounts have been deleted, sometimes it takes one user reporting them to be taken down. So I would suggest we need a team of different moderators with different backgrounds to regulate certain content. 

Read More About The Instagram Shadowban:

  • The latest comments from Instagram, explaining how they ban hashtags
  • My first interview with Instagram, where they fed me non-answers about community guidelines by way of their press team, denying the shadowban was a thing
  • My interview with Exotic Cancer, where she talks about her experience of account deletion and shadowban
  • Sass & Clacks‘ round-up of where we got so far – and her important list of organisations to support and ways to protest the shadowban
  • PolePositive’s reminder that sex workers were affected by the shadowban first
  • Mary Emily O’Hara’s interviews for MTV News, where she talks to sex-positive, queer and feminist brands about how social media platforms are preventing them from using ads to promote their products
  • Jesselyn Cook’s article about how sexist the shadowban is via the Huffington Post.
  • Find out more in world leading pole dancer Jordan Kensley‘s Instagram story highlights.
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Sign The Petition

A star-studded line-up of pole dancers, studio owners and brands has created and endorsed this petition to stop Instagram from censoring pole dancers and to get more clarity about how the algorithm works. Sign it here.

Update (26 July 2019)

It looks like, from today or from late last night, hashtags like #femalefitness and a variety of pole hashtags have now ‘come back’ into the ‘Recent’ tab – so the ban seems to have been lifted for now! Well done to all the pole dancers who kept fighting!

Update (29 October 2019)

After obtaining an official apology from Instagram over the summer, a group of activists and pole dancers I’m part of created #EveryBODYVisible, an internet-wide movement to protest against IG censorship on World Internet Day. Join us and find out more here: http://everybodyvisible.com.

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4 thoughts on “What Instagram’s Pole Dance Shadowban Means For Social Media

  1. As a boudoir photographer I’ve been perpetually banned from fb for about 2 years now. I could have gone to ig but I just expected the same thing to happen there eventually and sure enough it looks like it’s happening. It sucks but I just try to live in a pre social kind of setting and market myself in other ways. It’s to dangerous to trust my livelihood to a platform that can turn the lights off at a moments notice for any reason.

    1. It’s starting to get too ridiculous to be true! We do need to find other platforms, but also giving up on IG is giving them too much power, which is scary…

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