Shadow banning, also called stealth banning, hellbanning, ghost banning, and comment ghosting, is the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or the user's content from some areas of an online community in such a way that the ban is not readily apparent to the user, regardless of whether the action is taken by an individual or an algorithm. For example, shadow-banned comments posted to a blog or media website would be visible to the sender, but not to other users accessing the site.

The phrase "shadow banning" has a colloquial history and has undergone some usage evolution. It originally applied to a deceptive sort of account suspension on web forums, where a person would appear to be able to post while actually having all of their content hidden from other users. More recently, the term has come to apply to alternative measures, particularly visibility measures like delisting and downranking.[1]

By partly concealing, or 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, and that spammers and trolls will be discouraged[2] to continue their unwanted behavior or create new accounts.[3][4]

History edit

In the mid-1980s, BBS forums including Citadel BBS software had a "twit bit" for problematic users[3][5] which, when enabled, would limit the user's access while still allowing them to read public discussions; however, any messages posted by that "twit" would not be visible to the other members of that group.[3][6]

The term "shadow ban" is believed to have originated with moderators on the website Something Awful in 2001, although the feature was only used briefly and sparsely.[3]

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.[4] 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",[7] as in the British expression "to send someone to Coventry", meaning to ignore them and pretend they do not exist.

A 2012 update to Hacker News introduced a system of "hellbanning" for spamming and abusive behavior.[8][9]

Early on, Reddit implemented a similar feature, initially designed to address spam accounts.[10] In 2015, Reddit added an account suspension feature that was said to have replaced its sitewide shadowbans, though moderators can still shadowban users from their individual subreddits via their AutoModerator configuration.[11] A Reddit user was accidentally shadow banned for one year in 2019, subsequently they contacted support and their comments were restored.[12]

A study of tweets written in a one-year period during 2014 and 2015 found that over a quarter million tweets had been censored in Turkey via shadow banning.[13] Twitter was also found, in 2015, to have shadowbanned tweets containing leaked documents in the US.[14][15]

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.[16]

WeChat was found in 2016 to have banned, without notice, posts and messages that contain certain[quantify] keywords.[10][17]

In 2017, the phenomenon was noticed on Instagram, with posts which included specific hashtags not showing up when those hashtags were used in searches.[18][19][20]

Controversies edit

Political controversies edit

"Shadow banning" became popularized in 2018 as a conspiracy theory when Twitter shadow-banned Republicans.[21] 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; Vice News alleged that this was a case of shadow-banning.[21][22] After the story, some conservatives accused Twitter of enacting a shadowban on Republican accounts, a claim which Twitter denied.[23] However, some accounts that were not overtly political or conservative apparently had the same algorithm applied to them.[24] Numerous news outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed News, Engadget and New York magazine, disputed the Vice News story.[23][25][26][27][28][29] 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.[30] In the blog post, Twitter claims it does not shadow ban by using "the old, narrow, and classical" definition of shadow banning.[31] Later, Twitter appeared to have adjusted its platform to no longer limit the visibility of some accounts.[32] In a research study that examined more than 2.5 million Twitter profiles, it was discovered that almost one in 40 had been shadowbanned by having their replies hidden or having their handles hidden in searches.[33][34]

During the 2020 Twitter account hijackings, hackers successfully managed to obtain access to Twitter's internal moderation tools via both social engineering and paying off an insider whom worked at Twitter.[35] Through this, images were leaked of an internal account summary page, which in turn revealed user 'flags' set by the system that confirmed the existence of shadow bans on Twitter. Accounts were flagged with terms such as "Trends Blacklisted" and "Search Blacklisted" implying that the user was not able to publicly trend, or show up in public search results. After the situation was dealt with, Twitter faced accusations of censorship with claims that they were trying to hide the existence of shadow bans by removing tweets that contained images of the internal staff tools used, however Twitter claimed they were removed as they revealed sensitive user information.[36]

On December 8, 2022, the second thread of the Twitter Files—a series of Twitter threads based on internal Twitter, Inc. documents shared by owner Elon Musk with independent journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss—addressed a practice referred to as "visibility filtering" by previous Twitter management. The functionality included tools allowing accounts to be tagged as "Do not amplify", and under "blacklists" that reduce their prominence in search results and trending topics. It was also revealed that certain accounts, such as the far-right Libs of TikTok, had been given a warning stating that decisions regarding them should only be made by Twitter's Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support (SIP–PES) team—which consists primarily of high-ranking officials. The functions were given by Musk and other critics as examples of "shadow banning".[37][38][39]

Conspiracy theories edit

A form of conspiracy theory has become popular in which a social media content creator suggests that their content has been intentionally suppressed by a platform which claims not to engage in shadow banning.[40] Platforms frequently targeted by these accusations include Twitter,[3] Facebook,[26] YouTube and Instagram.[40]

To explain why users may come to believe they are subject to "shadow bans" even when they are not, Elaine Moore of the Financial Times writes:[40]

Like Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, social media influencers are at the mercy of algorithms. This makes them perfect fodder for conspiracy theories. It also makes sense that influencers would be baffled by any sudden decrease in engagement and spooked by changes that might jeopardise the brand deals they sign. Instead of believing that their own popularity is waning, some cling to the idea that shadowbans are a disciplinary measure that is used against creators who do not warrant an outright ban from a platform.

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Leerssen, Paddy. "An End to Shadow Banning? Transparency rights in the Digital Services Act between content moderation and curation". osf.io: 3. doi:10.31219/osf.io/7jg45. Retrieved 2022-12-11.
  2. ^ Thompson, Clive (29 March 2009). "Clive Thompson on the Taming of Comment Trolls". Wired magazine. Archived from the original on 2015-08-05. Retrieved 6 July 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e Cole, Samantha (31 July 2018). "Where Did the Concept of 'Shadow Banning' Come From?". Motherboard. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ Atwood, Jeff (4 June 2011). "Suspension, Ban or Hellban?". Coding Horror blog. Archived from the original on 30 December 2011. Retrieved 17 December 2011.
  6. ^ "Manual installation of Citadel using source code and the command line client - Citadel.org". www.citadel.org. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  7. ^ Bohn, Dieter (16 February 2017). "One of Twitter's new anti-abuse measures is the oldest trick in the forum moderation book". The Verge. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  8. ^ Leena Rao (18 May 2013). "The Evolution of Hacker News". TechCrunch. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
  9. ^ "Can the democratic power of a platform like Hacker News be applied to products?". Pando. 4 December 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  10. ^ a b Ruan, Lotus; Knockel, Jeffrey; Ng, Jason Q.; Crete-Nishihata, Masashi (30 November 2016). "One App, Two Systems: How WeChat uses one censorship policy in China and another internationally - The Citizen Lab". The Citizen Lab. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  11. ^ Shu, Catherine (November 11, 2015). "Reddit Replaces Its Confusing Shadowban System With Account Suspensions". TechCrunch. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  12. ^ Gerken, Tom (2019-04-11). "The Redditor who accidentally spent a year talking to himself". BBC News. Retrieved 2023-03-13.
  13. ^ Tanash, Rima S.; Chen, Zhouhan; Thakur, Tanmay; Wallach, Dan S.; Subramanian, Devika (1 January 2015). "Known Unknowns". Proceedings of the 14th ACM Workshop on Privacy in the Electronic Society. WPES '15. New York, NY, USA: ACM. pp. 11–20. doi:10.1145/2808138.2808147. ISBN 9781450338202. S2CID 207229086.
  14. ^ Ohlheiser, Abby (30 October 2015). "Tweets are disappearing on Twitter. Why?". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  15. ^ Pearson, Jordan (October 19, 2015). "Is Twitter Censoring a Blockbuster Report on US Drone Assassinations?". Motherboard. Retrieved 26 July 2017.
  16. ^ Weedmark, David. "How to Prevent Ghost Posting on Craigslist". Chron.com.
  17. ^ Doctorow, Cory (December 2, 2016). "China's We Chat "shadow-bans" messages with forbidden keywords, but only for China-based accounts". Boing Boing. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  18. ^ Lorenz, Taylor (7 June 2017). "Instagram's "shadowban," explained: How to tell if Instagram is secretly blacklisting your posts". Mic Network Inc. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  19. ^ Wong, Kristin (April 23, 2017). "How to See If Your Instagram Posts Have Been Shadowbanned". Lifehacker. Retrieved 4 November 2017.
  20. ^ "Photographers Claim Instagram is 'Shadow Banning' Their Accounts". PetaPixel. 28 March 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  21. ^ a b Romano, Aja (6 September 2018). "How hysteria over Twitter shadow-banning led to a bizarre congressional hearing". Vox.
  22. ^ Thompson, Alex (26 July 2018). "Twitter appears to have fixed "shadow ban" of prominent Republicans like the RNC chair and Trump Jr.'s spokesman". Vice News. Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  23. ^ a b Stack, Liam (26 July 2018). "What Is a 'Shadow Ban,' and Is Twitter Doing It to Republican Accounts?". The New York Times.
  24. ^ Eordogh, Fruzsina (31 July 2018). "Why Republicans Weren't The Only Ones Shadow Banned On Twitter".
  25. ^ Warzel, Charlie (July 26, 2018). "Twitter Isn't Shadow-Banning Republicans. Here's Why". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  26. ^ a b Feldman, Brian (25 July 2018). "Twitter Is Not 'Shadow Banning' Republicans". Intelligencer. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  27. ^ Wilson, Jason (27 July 2018). "What is 'shadow banning', and why did Trump tweet about it?". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  28. ^ Swapna Krishna (26 July 2018). "Twitter says supposed 'shadow ban' of prominent Republicans is a bug". Engadget. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  29. ^ Laura Hazard Owen (27 July 2018). "Twitter's not "shadow banning" Republicans, but get ready to hear that it is". Nieman Lab. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  30. ^ "Setting the record straight on shadow banning". Twitter. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  31. ^ "Shedding Light on Shadowbanning". Center for Democracy and Technology. 26 April 2022. p. 37. Retrieved 2022-12-11.
  32. ^ Alex Thompson (26 July 2018). "Twitter appears to have fixed search problems that lowered visibility of GOP lawmakers". Vice. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  33. ^ Le Merrer, Erwan; Morgan, Benoit; Trédan, Gilles (2020-12-09). "Setting the Record Straighter on Shadow Banning". arXiv:2012.05101 [cs.SI].
  34. ^ Nicholas, Gabriel (2022-04-28). "Shadowbanning Is Big Tech's Big Problem". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
  35. ^ Cox, Joseph. "Hackers Convinced Twitter Employee to Help Them Hijack Accounts". Vice.com. Vice. Retrieved 21 January 2024.
  36. ^ Nathaniel, Popper; Kate, Conger. "Hackers Tell the Story of the Twitter Attack From the Inside". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 21 January 2024.
  37. ^ Shapero, Julia (8 December 2022). "Former NYT columnist Bari Weiss releases 'Twitter Files Part Two'". The Hill. Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  38. ^ Urquhart, Evan (2022-12-09). "The Anti-Trans Hate Account That Bari Weiss Says Is Yet Another Right-Wing Voice Censored by Twitter". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
  39. ^ "The Twitter Files, Part Two, Explained". Gizmodo. 2022-12-09. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
  40. ^ a b c Moore, Elaine (13 March 2022). "The truth about 'shadowbanning' is more complicated than influencers think". Financial Times. Retrieved 12 June 2022.