by Chauncey Tinker – 31 Jan 2018
After the recent news that social media sites were going to increase their censorship activities (under pressure from European governments), we weren’t left in any doubt that political bias not only existed on social media platforms, but was increasing. On Twitter, some accounts began to lose the blue tick badge that shows they are “verified” accounts, and other accounts were deleted altogether. However, a particularly insidious form of censorship has also been practiced, known as “shadow-banning”.
When a website shadow bans a user, the website is still allowing that user to use the website, but they are making that user’s comments visible less often or not visible to other users. By visible less often this means that the user’s comment may be visible to some other users but not visible to others, which could be determined randomly or by some other means.
Often a user who has been shadow banned will not realize immediately that this is happening. The first sign might be that they just start to notice that their comments are getting less feedback than before, and/or some of their followers may start to report that their comments are not visible to them.
For example, Twitter openly states in their Help Center that they do limit the visibility of individual tweets:
See the Twitter web page here:
Our range of enforcement options
Twitter have denied that they shadow-ban accounts (as opposed to individual tweets). From Forbes:
Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech?
“Twitter does not shadowban accounts. We do take actions to downrank accounts that are abusive, and mark them accordingly so people can still to click through and see these Tweets if they so choose.”
They “downrank” accounts – in other words, they DO shadow ban accounts.
However you can easily test this for yourself and prove them wrong. There are two Twitter accounts, “communistsusa” and “Gun_Shots”. You can see both these accounts if you paste the following urls in your address bar:
However if you go to Twitter search and type:
you see results for that account, but if you type:
you do not. Here is the twitter search link if you want to try it, I tried it today at the time of writing and I was not logged in to Twitter at the time:
Please note that it is probable that multiple methods of shadow-banning are being employed, so the above test may not work for all accounts that are shadow-banned. Twitter may of course also remove the shadow ban on this particular account or change the way they shadow ban accounts in general (especially once the news gets around that there is a method to detect it), so this test may not continue to work for long.
The problems of spamming and targeted harassment are real enough, and can be very annoying to users. Users report the behaviour and the offending account is banned by the website, only to re-appear under a new alias. This problem is really inevitable due to the anonymity that the internet provides.
Websites developed the method of shadow-banning as a counter to this. By making the offending user’s comments invisible to others they deceived the spammers etc. into thinking that they were not being banned when effectively they were. However, once the idea had occurred to websites they began to use it for other purposes, such as simply suppressing content that they didn’t like or didn’t agree with politically.
Here is a dictionary definition of fraud, from Oxford Dictionaries:
Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.
Social media companies generally make money from advertising, and so the more time people spend at their site the more advertising revenue they will get. By shadow-banning rather than banning a person outright, the companies are ensuring that they still get revenue from those people, because the affected person is likely to continue using the social media website while they are unaware of the shadow-ban. Obviously it is in the social media company’s financial interests then to shadow-ban the user but not ban them outright, and clearly this constitutes deception for financial gain.
Since most users of social media do so without paying any money for the service, I suppose it would probably be difficult to win a legal case against the companies for most users, even though their time (and in some cases a lot of time) has been wasted. However some users pay for adverts on the platforms to increase their followings, and in these cases I suspect that a legal case against the social media company involved might even have some chance of success (please note this is pure speculation – I am not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice).
I have focused on Twitter in this post, but similar claims have been made about other social media sites. From Steemit, a user complains of a shadow ban on Reddit:
Is ShadowBanning Fraud?
From PetaPixel, claims that Instagram is shadow banning accounts:
Photographers Claim Instagram is ‘Shadow Banning’ Their Accounts
From our contributor Jillian Becker at the Atheist Conservative who reports she has been shadow banned on Facebook:
Censoring the internet
(also linked to this in a previous post).
Even some people who are not being subjected to shadow bans today will see that it is at best an immoral practice particularly when used in the political arena. It does not just affect people financially of course, the deceptive nature of the practice has a psychological impact as well – those affected start to wonder if they are becoming paranoid and to wonder if their comments are just not making as much sense as they used to do.
Social media companies wield enormous power in the world today due to their huge numbers of users, and consequently the practice of shadow banning may be having a significant impact on politics. We can counter the practice by publicizing it as much as possible and providing evidence as I did above. You can also link to this article elsewhere as well to get the information to more people. If some of those affected were to try taking the companies to court that would also help to expose the practice more widely as well.
Social Media Companies – Thought Police Of The Internet
Bozell: Twitter ‘shadow banning’ is ‘most sinister threat to free speech in history’
A fact-checker gets shadow-banned on Twitter, again. This is a worrying trend
UNDERCOVER VIDEO: Twitter Engineers To “Ban a Way of Talking” Through “Shadow Banning,” Algorithms to Censor Opposing Political Opinions
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.