What is shadow banning?

What is shadow banning?

Your social media posts, as far as you can tell, are great, but they don’t drive engagement. Are you “shadowbanned”?

The term refers to the perception – real or imagined – that social media companies take stealth measures to limit the visibility of a message. And it’s been coming up a lot lately.

What Elon Musk said about the Twitter shadow ban

Last month, Elon Musk – the billionaire new owner of Twitter and a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” – used the term in the context of so-called Twitter Files, internal company documents that were published with permission from Musk.

They showed that Twitter officials debated blocking New York Post reporting on Hunter Biden, son of the current president, in October 2020, a month before the presidential election.

Musk said the documents prove that company executives at the time engaged in the shadow ban. Twitter initially defended its action on the grounds that the report was unverified, but later said it would change its policy for similar content.

That same month, Musk himself was charged with a shadow ban. The student behind the @ElonJet Twitter account, which was tracking the whereabouts of Musk’s private plane, learned from Twitter employees that he had been deliberately silenced and tweeted about it. The account is now suspended.

What are the origins of the term “shadow ban”?

The very idea that our online activity can be manipulated by a platform without our knowledge can be disconcerting, said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of computer science and law at Harvard University. “The shadow ban is any user’s concern that they’re screaming into the void, that they’ve been placed in a bubble, and that’s not being disclosed,” he said.

The term dates back to at least 2012, when Reddit users accused the platform’s administrators of banning a link to a Gawker article while publicly advocating for transparency.

The meaning of the term has evolved over time. Now users can issue a “phantom ban” to describe general annoyance at not getting the attention they think they deserve on social media, even if they don’t necessarily think a platform has engaged in clandestine moderation.

Is corporate shade banning legal?

Private companies are allowed to set their own rules on content moderation, but for advertisers, users and free speech champions, true phantom bans are problematic because they covertly enforce unarticulated rules, said Katharine Trendacosta, technology policy expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

They allow a company to avoid taking responsibility for moderating content while quietly manipulating its feed. And those who are silenced have no process to come out of the shadows.

Harvard’s Zittrain said the debates around the shadow ban have highlighted societal divisions and two big issues plaguing tech companies that handle the tsunami of online content.

“We can’t agree on what we want,” he said, “and we don’t trust anyone who tells us they can handle it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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