Hashtags and NSFW content on Twitter

Antsstyle
5 min readNov 5, 2022

In recent times, I’ve seen several artists talk about being “shadowbanned” on Twitter. This article is for two purposes: explaining what ‘shadowbans’ are, and why hashtags should be avoided by NSFW artists at all costs.

What is ‘shadowbanning’?

This is the name used to describe when Twitter suppresses the reach of your tweets, without explicitly making it clear to you unless you go out of your way to find out.

Shadowbanning can take several forms:

  • Preventing you from appearing in the pop-up search results when someone types in a name
  • Preventing your tweets showing at all in the search results pages
  • (unconfirmed speculation) not showing tweets to some users

Each of these is a separate type of ban, and they can be active together at once. All of them are temporary bans; Twitter never permanently shadowbans anybody. The duration of them can be anything from a few days to potentially 4–6 weeks, as an estimate, but they are dynamic and are not set time periods. An artist being seemingly “permanently shadowbanned” is an indication that they are continuing to post tweets that are shadowban worthy — i.e. the shadowban is being refreshed. It is never permanent.

Twitter shadowbans people for legitimate reasons: for example, to prevent harmful spam or malicious tweets from circulating or being shown in searches. A less obvious example, however, is to suppress NSFW content. Twitter does this to avoid e.g. minors, or those who are not logged in (and thus cannot be confirmed to be minors or not) from inadvertently seeing NSFW content they did not intend to see.

Being shadowbanned, at any time, is not in itself a reason to be concerned, no matter how much it is affecting you. What it does mean, however, is you might want to look at your posting practices, as they are almost invariably the reason for shadowbans happening.

Generally speaking — from what I have seen of artist twitters, of which I have seen many, and from developer knowledge, the biggest culprit by far is the use of hashtags.

Why does Twitter suppress NSFW content for having hashtags in it?

There’s a few reasons.

To understand the below explanations better, bear in mind that hashtags are entirely designed for searching and classifying. Their whole purpose is to help people search for tweets on a given topic.

Ease of classification

Unlike regular text searches, which are nearly impossible for Twitter to police in an easy and automated manner, hashtags are unambiguous. If you post an image with the hashtag “#Makima”, your image is now unquestionably associated with that hashtag — and is very easy to search for.

It’s therefore much easier for Twitter’s systems to know that your image is directly about the subject “Makima”, and that if people are flagging it as NSFW or Twitter’s systems have determined that it is NSFW, that it should be suppressed.

People — and bots — frequently use hashtags to search for specific things. This means that a person searching for #Makima is suddenly going to be greeted with a bunch of NSFW artworks they were not necessarily looking to see. Twitter, understandably, tries to avoid this — by suppressing accounts which post NSFW art with hashtags in them.

Ease of abuse

Hashtags, by the nature of being given special status on Twitter (as you can click them like links to search for them, and so on) are frequently abused by bad actors, such as malicious bots and users. This means that Twitter is especially vigilant about the use of hashtags for the wrong purposes, no matter your intent.

A little side story at this juncture:

I learned about hashtag stuff the hard way when I initially began developing the app that helps me to run my Twitter account. Back then, automated retweeting was prohibited by Twitter’s developer rules — I could only repost automatically, not retweet the original artist. I’d post an artwork with the title, artist and link, and I’d manually put one or two hashtags in it to help identify the subject — then my app would automatically post the tweet later.

On two occasions, my app got ‘muzzled’ — the term for being barred from posting pending Twitter review — without any obvious explanations. It took a long amount of discussion and back and forth with Twitter staff to recognise that hashtags were the likely cause. The developer rules did have a clause about hashtags; you could use them, but not to ‘game the system’ (e.g. by posting unrelated tweets to a trending hashtag, or such like). The trouble is that is almost impossible to get right — it is easy to inadvertently post to a trending hashtag, and it’s hard for Twitter to tell that your post is not an attempt to use that hashtag to boost your tweet artificially, especially if it’s e.g. on the border between SFW and NSFW content.

Years later, despite continually posting many automated tweets with links and twitter handles in them, my app has never been muzzled again. The almost certain conclusion of this was that I’d inadvertently fallen foul of Twitter’s hashtag spam systems.

NSFW artists will fall foul of this even more easily. Not on purpose, of course, but because artists frequently draw things that are currently trending — meaning that their posts will be scrutinised more by Twitter’s systems. Posting e.g. an NSFW art of a trending character with their trending hashtag, while it might seem like an intuitive way to get attention — is a very bad idea for all the reasons above. There is a very blurry line between an artist trying to get attention for a genuine post, and an attempt to misuse the trending hashtags, and you should assume you will fall on the wrong side of that line.

Conclusion

All of this boils down to the fact that NSFW content isn’t meant to be used with hashtags. Twitter, like most sites, needs NSFW content not to be shown to be people who don’t want to see it, making hashtags and NSFW content basically incompatible with each other.

For NSFW artists — avoid using hashtags at any time for any reason. If you are using them, stop using them; you don’t have to worry that your account is “destroyed” or “dead” or anything like that. All shadowbans are temporary, and will be lifted in time — you just need to be patient. I don’t think deleting previous works with hashtags in them is likely to cause a shadowban to be lifted faster, so I wouldn’t bother with that — just change your practices going forward.

For SFW artists — shadowbans basically don’t exist. There’s nothing wrong with using hashtags — personally I don’t think it’s all that useful, as for artists most growth comes from people seeing retweets, as opposed to searches (and searches are all hashtags are useful for). I would still advise against it, just in case you post something on the near-NSFW side that gets flagged, and frankly hashtags make posts look a little robotic in my opinion anyway.

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