Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real

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Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real
Elon Musk joked about ‘shadowbanning’ first and now content creators confirm that it is real; here is all you need to know about silent censorshipClint Patterson/Unsplash
  • Shadowbanning’ or ‘ghost banning’ is the act when social media posts are taken down, muted or hidden from followers without informing the user or creator.
  • A user could continue posting, but their posts won’t be visible to the rest of the community.
  • While social media platforms have denied that shadowbanning exists, many content creators and internet users believe otherwise.
  • In the last few years, many shadowbanning trackers have also cropped up on the internet.
  • Here’s all you need to know about shadowbanning.
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Shortly before Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk announced his intentions to buy social media platform Twitter, he made a ‘joke’ about Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gate gaining weight. Immediately after, he tweeted again to say, “ Shadow ban council reviewing tweet,” with an image of six hooded people who seem to be discussing something fishy.

This conversation around shadowban isn’t new. It comes and goes in phases. Now, more Indian content creators are experiencing shadowbanning and it’s becoming a widespread concern among internet users.
Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real
How has 'shadowbanning', as a search term, seen growth in the last five years across the worldBI India

Recently, Indian independent journalist Rana Ayyub claimed to have been shadowbanned on social media platform Instagram for speaking up for Palestinian citizens.

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Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid also called out Instagram for suppressing her voice, limiting her reach and deactivating the 'share' button on her 'Save Palestinian Citizens' post. She termed it a ‘breach of human rights’ and "the biggest form of bias and unjust censorship".

TikTok was also called out by quite a few content creators for shadowbanning their posts on Black Lives Matter.

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What is shadowbanning and how it has evolved on the internet

A number of content creators Business Insider India spoke to defined ‘shadowbanning’ or ‘ghost banning’ as social media posts being taken down, muted or hidden from followers without informing the user or creator.

It is generally understood to be secret censorship of a person, community or a topic on social media. It quietly silences opinions.

As per media reports, the word ‘shadowban’ appeared in the early 2000s. It was a moderation technique, used to keep a check on bots, trolls, shitposters or anyone else they deemed harmful.

Shadowbanning isn’t just a social media lingo. It even existed in the 80s, wherein bulletin board systems (BBS), a computer server-running software used to exchange information, would limit ‘twit bit.’ Someone who would exhibit immature behavior, was flagged as a ‘twit’ and was granted limited access. After they were flagged, only the twit and the admin could see their messages on the board.

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As the internet became a primary mode of communication, content moderation and social media algorithms became much more complicated and lines started blurring. Today, people use the term shadowbanning quite often. Some content creators blame the streak of their low-performing content pieces or dip in reach on shadowbanning.

“No matter how exciting the word shadow banning sounds, the fact is that intricately means banning the voice of somebody completely. The word banned is binary in nature, it's a zero or a one, there is no spectrum here. So that means you will literally get no one else to see your content,” clarifies Preetham Venkky, Chief Digital Officer of advertising agency DDB Mudra Group and President at digital marketing agency 22feet Tribal Worldwide.

As per a few media reports, when shadowbanned, users can continue to post messages, add new followers and comment or reply to other posts. But their messages may not appear in the feed, their replies may be suppressed and they may not show up in searches under their usernames.

An economist report also said that a major and sudden drop in likes or retweets is also a form of shadowban, wherein the user is restricted to reach out to new people. Their posts are only visible to them and their followers.

Body positivity content creator Prableen Kaur has seen a few creators and users being shadowbanned. She defines it as, “There's a certain topic that you're talking about, and maybe the platform doesn't want anyone to talk more about it, then they will decrease the amount of reach you will get on a particular post and that is shadowbanning for me. So for example, if there's something being spoken around bullying, then Instagram will shadowban that kind of user and try to not make it reach more people so that people are not influenced in the wrong way.”
Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real
Digital creator Prableen Kaur shares what is shadowbanningPrableen Kaur

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Un-webbing shadowban: a timeline

In 2019, Instagram had apologised for shadowbanning pole dancers and attendees of a Caribbean carnival. Posts with hashtags #PoleFitness and #StLuciaCarnival were removed from the explore tab completely but the platform said it was an error. “We apologise for the mistake,” a spokesperson said in both these cases. “It is never our intention to silence members of our community,” said the platform spokesperson.

In India, Facebook and Instagram ‘ mistakenly blocked’ #Sikh for almost three months in 2020. A similar apology was released after it caught international attention. An Instagram spokesperson said its ‘processes fell down and it was never their intention to silence members of this community.’

It did not seem like a coincidence. It was around the anniversary of Operation Blue Star, which was a military action ordered by former PM Indira Gandhi to flush out Sikh militants holed up in Harmandir Sahib Complex. Posts associated with #Sikh went up as the community raised its voice to mark the injustices of 1984; but were never heard.

Is shadowban real?

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It isn’t just Instagram. All platforms deny that shadowbanning is real. However, many users believe it is.

There are more than 98.4k hashtags #shadowbanned and 55.7k posts with #shadowban on Instagram as of May 12, 2022. There are over 30 combinations around the hashtag shadowbanned on Instagram, each with at least 100 posts.

While it is hard to confirm shadowbanning’s existence, there’s some evidence. In the last few years, many shadowbanning trackers have cropped up on the internet. Websites like HeistSocial.com, Tribber.com, shadowban.eu, shadowban.yuzurisa.com, to mention a few, allow users to determine if they are shadowbanned on different social media platforms.

Travel, fashion and lifestyle content creator Avantika Mohan took this test three months ago and confirmed that she was shadowbanned. “A lot of people say that shadowban is just in your head and it is just low-engagement. But when I was shadowbanned, people were unable to see my posts. I even did a poll on Instagram to find out if they could see it. They mentioned that they were unable to see my posts.”
Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real
Avantika Mohan talks to Business Insider India about her experience of being shadowbannedAvantika Mohan

While Mohan said she didn’t see a pattern in this ghost ban, body positive content creator Neelakshi Singh, spotted a trend in how it works.

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“Creators who’ve called out racism or other marginalised communities like the black community or Asian community were refrained from posting about an issue -- I feel that somewhere that is buried in. Any issues or anything that doesn't fulfill the property or satisfy the mainstream, I feel that goes on to a shadowban.”

On the other hand, digital content creator Shivani Kapila believes that it is just a perception.

“It's very convenient for a creator like me to say that it [content] is shadowbanned rather than coming up with different content ideas and brainstorming further. It is maybe because my crowd is exhausted of seeing what I've been showing for about six months.”

When a social media user is banned permanently from the platform, they receive an official email or a notification before, whereas, when a user is shadowbanned, they are kept in the dark. Their hashtags don’t seem to work -- posts fail to appear on the ‘explore’ tab when clicked on the hashtag.

Is there a way to dodge shadowban and play safe?
Instagram appears to have shadowbanned hashtags such as #hotweather, #asiangirls, #alone, #brain, #bikinibody, to mention a few. On the other hand, Business Insider India found out that #gunviolence has more than 182k posts as of May 13, 2022.
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Social media platforms deny but content creators and tracking websites confirm that shadowbanning or silent censorship is real
Hashtags that are banned on InstagramBI India

A few users and content creators have found a way to dodge this hashtag ban.

“To circumvent the issue of certain words or phrases being flagged, ‘Algospeak’ is fast becoming a commonly used practice among the netizens, where alternatives are found in rhyming words, abbreviations, pop-culture references, emojis and more such creative means. When a platform won’t allow using the hashtag sexual assault to discuss the issue, it becomes #SA. A vibrator isn’t an appropriate lingo for social media, so an eggplant emoji is used; the internet is littered with such examples,” Shivani Kamdar, associate creative director at digital agency SoCheers tells Business Insider India.

Rashid Ahmed, head of digital at marketing agency Infectious Advertising, also shared a few words that can get you banned on Instagram.

"Body shaming terms (like fat and ugly), negative adjectives or phrases (like sad and selfish or spewing crazy) and known to be factually incorrect statements, can be cause for a user’s post to be shadowbanned. Repeated inappropriate content identifications could lead to a user being barred from posting for a specific period. Unwittingly used tags like #Snap, #pushups, #single, #brain or even #alone, could result in suppression or being shadowbanned."

Ahmed suggested that creators can avoid being shadowbanned by "being mindful of the type of content they create, by using appropriately ‘safe’ language, and delivering to their audiences’ interests and tastes."
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Lack of transparency around updated algorithm is eroding user trust

While we all know that Instagram bans certain hashtags time and again to moderate its content and its algorithm keeps changing, many say that its lack of transparency is the most frustrating part.

By not informing users what is deemed appropriate by the platform and how to adjust their content as per Instagram’s liking, user trust is affected and it also comes across as discriminatory.

Founder and CEO of influencer marketing platform Wobb, Ishan Jindal, says, “If shadow banning is a thing, then it is a drawback at the end of the social media platforms and their flawed policies that practice censorship of voices. In terms of the content creator industry, such a phenomenon would highly restrict a creator’s individualism and unconventional tendencies.”

Telling us how it can affect a creator, he adds, “Any type of censorship of the content with the idea of suppressing voices can severely damage the trust between social media platforms and their users. Such a phenomenon also affects public figures, creators and their relationships with the audience.”
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With their algorithm, social media platforms have the power to decide what the mainstream audience sees on the explore tab.

Telling us how algorithms work, Kamdar says, “If a topic or conversation is deemed “inappropriate” by a platform’s algorithm, no matter how significant it is for the individual or the community, the content around it won’t reach its desired audience, thus affecting the creator’s discoverability to an extent. It won’t matter how painstakingly the content is created, or how significant a role it could play, its reach will be limited.”

In case of the shadowban on #sikh before Operation Blue Star anniversary, an entire community was stopped from talking about a painful historic event. Similarly, TikTok had restricted #BlackLivesMatter’s reach.

While social media platforms have denied the allegations, they have also released apologies for blocking these hashtags, when there was a social movement rising simultaneously in real life.

This could lead to lack of trust among many users and content creators. To turn this around, Neelakshi says that platforms need to be more transparent so that creators can work their way around the algorithm and hashtags that are banned.
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“As a female user, I would want to have more control in terms of what I'm able to create or what I am able to speak about.”

It is important for the platforms now to address the ‘ghost’ in the room and bring it out of the shadows.

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Elon Musk joked about ‘shadowbanning’ first and now content creators confirm that it is real; here is all you need to know about silent censorship. ‘Shadowbanning’ or ‘ghost banning’ is the act when social media posts are taken down, muted or hidden from followers without informing the user or creator

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Elon Musk called Twitter newsfeed algorithms 'manipulative,' prompting a reply from founder Jack Dorsey, who disagreed with the claim

Elon Musk called Twitter newsfeed algorithms 'manipulative,' prompting a reply from founder Jack Dorsey, who disagreed with the claim

Elon Musk joked about ‘shadowbanning’ first and now content creators confirm that it is real; here is all you need to know about silent censorship. ‘Shadowbanning’ or ‘ghost banning’ is the act when social media posts are taken down, muted or hidden from followers without informing the user or creator