The concept of the “shadowban” has existed practically since the inception of the web forum. The idea is simple: Instead of banning a user outright and informing them of such punishment, a shadowban makes a user’s post visible only to themselves. In other words, they think that they’re still part of a community, but nobody is able to see or interact with them. The shadowban is useful in that rather than someone immediately being locked out and possibly retaliating by, for example, making a new account, the user fades away gradually due to the lack of interaction from other users.
As forums have evolved into social-media platforms, the shadowban and its descendants have come along with them. Facebook argued that the best way to dispel misinformation from places like Infowars, which argues that the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a staged hoax, was to secretly minimize their distribution in the site’s News Feed — a similar but not identical tactic. I myself have previously argued — tongue in cheek — that Twitter should shadowban (or “hellban”) President Donald Trump, who most recently threatened a cataclysmic war against Iran. The idea being that he gets the feeling of communicating with his followers while his actual posts are hidden from the (volatile) world.
More than anywhere else, though, the shadowban has persisted among the conspiracy-minded, as a great weapon of censorship, generally thought to be perpetrated by liberal Silicon Valley operatives at the expense of conservatives. That right-wing voices are being “shadow banned” by Twitter and Facebook has become all but an article of faith among internet-native conservative activists and publishers — despite little evidence to support the claim.
At issue is the mechanism by which accounts are automatically suggested when a user begins typing in Twitter’s search function — typing “Donald,” for example, brings up Trump’s account as an easily accessible hyperlink. According to Vice, some “prominent Republicans” are not being suggested when you type in their names. Included in that group are people like Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel and the spokesperson for Donald Trump Jr., Andrew Surabian, as well as a number of GOP lawmakers. Vice’s report is essentially a more partisan-focused repackaging of an article published by Gizmodo on Sunday, which covered how alt-right figures like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler were also not appearing in auto-populated fields on Twitter (in some instances, parody accounts were featured in their stead).
To start with, this sort of moderation isn’t shadow banning. Users following the affected accounts will still see their tweets; those accounts still appear in search (just not in the search-bar auto-population). To the extent that this is even a problem, it’s pretty easy to buy Twitter’s explanation that this is a side effect of a minimal measure designed to make sure that people aren’t preemptively encouraged to consume bad information from dubious sources.
New York Law School professor Ari Ezra Waldman told Vice that, “This isn’t evidence of a pattern of anti-conservative bias, since some Republicans still appear and some don’t. This just appears to be a cluster of conservatives who have been affected.” He added, “If anything, it appears that Twitter’s technology for minimizing accounts instead of banning them just isn’t very good.” That’s a more likely scenario than a cabal of secretive Twitter employees trying to suppress the speech of … Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesperson.
It’s well-established that right-wing media and personalities are much more willing to traffic in falsehoods and sensationalized outrage than their left-wing counterparts, despite what platforms claim. This past spring, Twitter announced new efforts to combat “troll-like behaviors.” But in framing this issue as the “suppression of conservative values” instead of “minimizing falsehoods and bad faith,” Vice has given conservatives even more ammo with which to claim oppression.
Vice’s story feels an awful lot like one reported two years ago by Gizmodo, which claimed that Facebook was “suppressing conservatives.” In reality, Facebook’s editors were making the editorial judgment call that manufactured, misleading, and hyperpartisan stories from conservative outlets — such as ones about Benghazi, in 2016 — were less relevant to Facebook’s users than breaking stories from mainstream outlets. Similarly, Twitter’s new system seems less about suppressing conservative viewpoints and more about minimizing controversial figures whose primary tactic is to stoke outrage through heavy slant or outright distortion.