Self

What 'Shadow Banning' Means & How To Tell If Your Social Media Is Being Censored

Photo: Alexey Laputin / Shutterstock
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Notice your favorite social media stars making desperate pleas to followers to like/share/comment on their posts? It could be because they’re shadow banned.

On Instagram and Twitter, shadow banning tends to be a kind of taboo subject. Users often don’t even know they’re shadow banned, and if they suspect it, they probably won’t be that vocal about it.

On TikTok, however, criticizing the shadow ban feature is open season. 

Straight TikTok, alt TikTok, WitchTok, prison TikTok — every subculture has fallen victim to shadow banning at one point or another. Except for cottagecore TikTok; they might be immune.

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Popular creators on the app make no secret of their sudden drop in engagement when they’re hit with a shadow ban, often poking fun at it in their comment sections or in the captions of their posts.

TikTok even faced public criticism in 2020 from Black creators who claimed their #BlackLivesMatter posts were being shadow banned on the app, a claim which the app apologized for but denied.

But this debate raised some interesting questions. How much censorship are we subjected to on our social media apps, and who decides what gets censored?

What is shadow banning? 

Shadow banning, stealth banning, or ghost banning is the act of blocking a social media user’s content without the user knowing.

The specific effects of shadow banning look different across different social media platforms, but the outcome is uniform: a sudden and unexplained drop in engagement that impedes a user’s likes, comments, follower count, or views. 

Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have repeatedly denied the existence of a shadow ban on their platforms, but users and experts say otherwise, leading many to believe it's a conspiracy theory to suppress information on certain users' platforms.

Perhaps they are not outright banning specific posts, content, or hashtags, but they are undoubtedly restricting access to them.

   

   

If your favorite creator is shadow banned, you can still see their posts when you search their profiles or on your following feed, but there’s little chance their content is making it to an Explore Page or For You Page, which severely impacts their ability to attract new followers.

In some cases, particularly on TikTok, shadow banned content will be outright deleted from a profile with no explanation.

Where did the term 'shadow ban' originate?

The term "shadow ban" is said to have been coined back in 2001 by moderators on the website Something Awful. The term was used to describe the moderation of trolls on the site.

“We would use it as a joke and only do it to people who were intentionally trying to troll others... None of the moderators used it very often, and we got rid of it within a year, replacing it with simply banning the person,” Rich Kyanka, creator of Something Awful, revealed.

However, the practice itself dates back to the 1980s; Quartz BBS, a message board hosted by a Rutgers University server, limited access to certain users, which was called a "twit bit."

Shadow banning as a term became popularized in the 2010s, with Reddit using a similar feature on their site in an effort to curb spam accounts.

What causes shadow banning?

Social media platforms do this in the name of the algorithm.

Who would want to see this shadow banned content anyway, right? From their perspective, it makes sense.

Shadow banning allows social media platforms to filter out any content that doesn’t comply with their code of conduct without outright banning users. It could also be used to limit the content that teeters on the edge of a breach of regulations but isn’t completely prohibited.

Shadow banning also restricts behavior that comes across as spam, such as filling your posts with countless hashtags and liking or following hundreds of accounts in quick succession.

All of this allows for genuine users to have access to helpful content and prevents somewhat controversial content from appearing in your recommended posts without you choosing to follow.

In practice, this process can be more of an act to suppress users than an attempt to protect them.

Instagram has blocked some content labeled #SexualHealth, but does not restrict items tagged #KillBlackPeople. Meanwhile, TikTok administrators have previously admitted that they restricted several LGBTQ+ hashtags on the app, including "gay," "lesbian" and "transgender."

An internal document unearthed from the company by The Intercept also confirmed that TikTok once “instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.”

This damning evidence exposes how shadow banning can perpetuate the oppression of minority groups.

Without disclosing the specifics of how or why people get shadow banned, social media platforms can easily shift and bend the rules to deem whatever content they choose to be worthy of shadow banning.

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How long do shadow bans last for? 

Shadow banning typically lasts 14 days after the date of the initial perceived infraction.

This means users can expect to see their engagement drop across all of their content on a platform for anything from liking too many posts to sharing explicit content for two weeks.

You can reduce this timeframe by quickly removing any posts or content that may have been perceived as a breach of the conduct rules. That is, if the app hasn’t already done that for you.

This can mean removing hashtags, deleting third-party apps like bot apps that like or follow people on your behalf, reporting a problem in your app settings, or just simply taking a break from the app.

Instagram, in particular, favors users who aren’t going on following or liking sprees for hours on end.

How do you know if you’re shadow banned?

The quick answer is: you don’t. This feature is designed to restrict users without the user knowing.

In the case of apps that deny the existence of shadow bans, they certainly aren’t going to warn you if it’s happening to you. Generally, content creators can only ever assume or guess that they may have been shadow banned since there’s no definitive proof.

Often, it takes loyal followers pointing out that they don’t see certain content recommended to them. You might also notice your content is not appearing under the hashtags you’ve used.

But overall, the main signifier of a shadow ban is a drop in engagement.

If you see certain videos or posts suddenly getting a lot less interaction than you’re used to, it’s possible that you have been shadow banned. 

   

   

Since there’s no clear way to avoid being shadow banned, there’s also no clear way to fix it if you are.

Aside from editing your content and removing anything that you think could have warranted a shadow ban, content creators are often left to sit tight and hope their followers can help them out of a shadow ban. Hence, the repeated pleas for interaction with their posts.

Users can only hope that social platforms learn from their past scandals and begin to apply their guidelines evenly across all groups. 

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Alice Kelly is a senior news and entertainment editor for YourTango. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, her work covers all things social justice, pop culture, and human interest. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.

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