Shadow banning (also called stealth banning, ghost banning or comment ghosting) is the act of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community such that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.
By making a user's contributions invisible or less prominent to other members of the service, the hope may be that in the absence of reactions to their comments, the problematic or otherwise out-of-favour user will become bored or frustrated and leave the site.
In the mid-1980s, BBS forums including Citadel BBS software had a "twit bit" for problematic users. When enabled, the user would have limited access, and commonly still be able to read public discussions; however, any messages posted by that "twit" would not be shown to the other users of that group.
Michael Pryor of Fog Creek Software described stealth banning for online forums in 2006, saying how such a system was in place in the project management system FogBugz, "to solve the problem of how do you get the person to go away and leave you alone". As well as preventing problem users from engaging in flame wars, the system also discouraged spammers, who if they returned to the site would be under the false impression that their spam was still in place. The Verge describes it as "one of the oldest moderation tricks in the book", noting that early versions of vBulletin had a global ignore list known as "Tachy goes to Coventry", as in the British expression "to send someone to Coventry", meaning to ignore them and pretend they don't exist.
Craigslist has also been known to "ghost" a user's individual ads, whereby the poster gets a confirmation email and may view the ad in their account, but the ad fails to show up in the appropriate category page.
Early on, Reddit implemented a similar feature, initially designed to address spam accounts, though it is also used for general users. In 2015, Reddit added an account suspension feature, though the site still makes extensive use of shadow banning.
In a study that looked at tweets from 2014 to early 2015, over a quarter million tweets were found during the one-year period in Turkey to have been censored via shadow banning. Twitter was also found, in 2015, to shadowban tweets containing leaked documents in the US.
"Shadow banning" became popularized in 2018 as a conspiracy theory that Twitter had shadow-banned Republicans. In late July 2018, Vice News found that several supporters of the US Republican Party no longer appeared in the auto-populated drop-down search menu on Twitter, thus limiting their visibility when being searched for - allegedly due to the same algorithm that was being used to do the same to the accounts of prominent racists. After that finding, some conservatives accused Twitter of enacting a shadowban on Republican accounts, which Twitter flatly denied. However, some accounts that were not overtly political or conservative apparently had the same algorithm applied to them. In a blog post, Twitter said that the use of the phrase "shadow banning" was inaccurate, as the tweets were still visible by navigating to the home page of the relevant account. Later, Twitter restored the affected accounts.
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- Robert Walsh (12 January 2006). Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality. Apress. p. 183. ISBN 978-1-4302-0114-4.
So one of the things we did in FogBugz to solve the problem of how do you get the person to go away and leave you alone is, well, you take their post and make it invisible to everyone else, but they still see it. They won’t know they’ve been deleted. There’s no one fanning their flame. You can’t get into a flame war if no one responds to your criticism. So they get silenced and eventually just go away. We have several ways of telling if they come back, and it’s been proven to be extremely, extremely effective. Say a spammer posts to your board and then they come back to check if it’s still there, and they see it—to them it’s still there—but no one else sees it, so they’re not bothered by it.
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