There’s something very anti-American about the practice of censorship, which is one big reason why any hint or whiff of censorship (especially if it is coming from Big Government or Big Business) always rings the alarm bells. A willingness to protect free speech, after all, is what separates America from China or any other authoritarian culture. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the suggestion of shadow banning on social media is causing such a ruckus these days.
Shadow banning in theory and practice
The easiest way to think about shadow banning is that it is a form of algorithmic censorship, in which the ability to manipulate a specific algorithm (such as a search algorithm) can help to hide the content of certain creators. In essence, by tweaking a few variables, social media platforms can ensure that content that certain people don’t like or support never appears in search results and never appears in your social media news feeds.
Twitter defines the practice as “deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.” Thus, you might be sending out tweets just like normal, and creating YouTube videos just like normal but… nobody is seeing them! In essence, it’s the equivalent of performing in front of an audience of zero and wondering why nobody came to see your show.
In practice, shadow banning means that left-leaning social media platforms can get rid of right-leaning political opponents. The common consensus these days is that platforms like YouTube have been shadow banning content from conservatives, Republicans and Trump supporters. Think of it as a form of “censorship lite,” in which you can always blame the algorithm instead of a person if anything gets censored.
The one case of shadow banning that generated a lot of buzz, of course, was the case of conspiracy theorist and alt-right supporter Alex Jones. He was at the forefront of claiming that the big social networks were trying to squeeze him. Every day, he would complain that views were down, engagement was down, and that he was being shadow banned. Pretty soon, a lot of conservative bloggers and Trump supporters were claiming that, they too, were being shadow banned. Was this a bit of paranoia, or was something really happening?
The big social media giants don’t want to talk about shadow banning
Against this backdrop, the big social media platforms have continued to insist that they do not shadow ban. Back in March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend the company’s apparent shadow banning of conservative voices from Facebook. And back in July, Twitter said “we do not shadow ban.” From their perspective, the failure of some tweets and Twitter profiles to show up in search results was, well, simply a case of an algorithm gone awry. Move along, there’s nothing to see here, right?
Maybe that’s the case. Maybe there really is nothing to see here. Maybe we’re all just imagining this and making a big deal out of nothing. For example, the biggest corporate brands on social media know that organic reach has been falling for months. But they don’t use the term “shadow ban” or complain about conspiracies against their content.
But here’s the thing – look at what else has happened recently. YouTube has been systematically demonetizing videos and, in some cases, deleting accounts entirely. YouTube creators routinely complain that certain privileges – such as the right to live stream – are constantly being taken away. And all of these creators seem to be from the same side of the political spectrum, if you know what I mean.
And, for Alex Jones, things have gone from bad to worse. Recently, the big social media platforms launched a coordinated offensive to turn off all sources of advertising income for Alex Jones and InfoWars. Every YouTube video was de-monetized. Moreover, they then combined forces to throw him out of the Apple app store and to effectively ban him for a lifetime from social media. How did so many platforms join forces so quickly? That’s what conspiracy theories are made of, folks. Some things just don’t add up.
When you take a moment to think things over, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that “something” has been going on. There’s something deeply unsettling and even Orwellian about any corporation having so much power that they can turn off voices they don’t like, and reward those that they do, all under the cover of “promoting healthy public conversation.” If this were happening in China, we’d be complaining about authoritarian attempts to scrub the Internet of dissenters.