Stephen Colbert taunting Elon Musk and claiming there is no censorship on Twitter.

The site used to be fun, funny, and a great tool for exchanging information. Now it feels like what the world would be if the eight most vile people in Brooklyn were put in charge of all human life, a giant, hyper-pretentious Thought-Starbucks.

~ Matt Tahibbi, Twitter’s Chickens Come Home to Roost, Apr 14 2022.

Shadow banning is a behind-the-scenes dialing down of someone’s presence in social media. While banning is provable, because one’s account is shut down, and there are notifications, shadow-banning is done secretly, and the only evidence anyone can point to is a sudden drop in their audience. Conspiracy theorists, conservatives, activists, truth-tellers, dissidents, non-conformists, news commentators, and independent thinkers from all over the political spectrum are finding their followings miraculously truncated, and suspect shadow-banning is the cause. Is it a real thing, or are they just being paranoid and making excuses for their falling out of favor, or lack of popularity? There is strong evidence that both above and below the table methods are being implemented to control who gets the spotlight, and who is brushed under the rug.

Statements from the new CEO of Twitter, Parag Agrawal, taken on their own, are rather shocking. You don’t even have to read between the lines, because he explicitly states that the “role” of Twitter is to determine “who can be heard”. He argues for “directing people’s attention” to content he finds desirable:

increasingly our role is moving towards how we recommend content … in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we’re building, how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation

~ Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal

It is undeniable that you can’t “direct people’s attention” toward content without directing it away from other content. When he says that is “increasingly our role”, that indicates that it wasn’t formerly the case, and that the company is ramping up how they filter content in accordance with what they believe is a “healthy conversation”. What is popular on Twitter is therefore not the consequence of organic growth, and doesn’t reflect the genuine views and interests of its users, but is steered and curated by Twitter. That is their stated position, and needs no interpretation.

The inevitable result is a company using the appearance of an ostensible public platform in order to influence opinion and direct belief. However, putting some content in the spotlight, which Twitter fully acknowledges, is not the same thing as deliberately hiding other content, and they steadfastly deny resorting to shadow banning. This could be for legal reasons as well as public relations, because sneaky censorship does not sit well with democracy, and deliberately eclipsing the visibility of businesses could lead to substantial financial losses, and people might seek compensation.

Shadow banning and censorship in general are front-page news at present because of Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter, explicitly to roll back its use of censorship, and to provide a free speech platform to the world. There seems to be an enormous divide when it comes to perceptions of whether or not censorship is taking place on Twitter. This is Stephen Colbert’s response to Elon:

In a statement Musk said he’s decided his initial investment wasn’t enough, and he now believes “Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company” and that his goal is to make “Twitter the free speech platform around the globe”. Hey you ding-a-ling: Twitter is already an international platform for free speech. DO you know how I know that? Because no one at Twitter can stop me from tweeting “Suck it, Elon Musk” in every language.

Quite obviously Twitter would have a vested interest in promoting anti-Musk sentiments such as this, but they are entirely capable of censoring it if they wanted to. This is humor, so one can’t require that it be a logically viable argument. What I’m pointing out is the strongly opposing perceptions (if Colbert is being genuine) concerning whether Twitter is practicing rampant censorship or not.

Caitlyn Jenner subsequently stated that her Twitter account was shadow-banned after she was hired by Fox News.

Note that the Daily Beast put “Baselessly” in their title. Other articles stressed “without evidence”. This is disingenuous because there’s no way to prove shadow banning unless the platform in question admits to it, which they won’t, or is caught out (stay tuned). This has the added effect that we can mock the person for thinking they are shadow banned, when in fact they are simply unpopular conspiracy theorists in denial. If shadow banning is a real thing, than that would be particularly cruel, because not only would a social media platform be suffocating someone’s presence without their knowing it, but they also make that person look like an F’ing loser. Let’s not underestimate the power to artificially make you look unpopular on in the popularity contest of social media.

Not surprisingly, she supports Musk.

Last month, Tulsi Gabbard Tweeted that her Instagram account was shadow-banned.

Interestingly, most responses to this tweet were openly hostile.

And this is where we might pause and wonder if this is just what Agrawal was talking about in terms of favoring “healthy conversations”. From his perspective, conservative voices such as Jenner’s or Gabbard’s are counter-productive, if not a threat to liberal values and a progressive agenda. In that case, a “healthy” conversation is one that upholds the preferred worldview. However, it’s not only conservatives that are crying foul. Chris Hedges wrote a piece yesterday railing against social media platforms censoring critiques of power and hegemony, whether they issue from the left or the right.

If you don’t know who Chris Hedges is, here’s a snippet from Wikipedia:

He’s had a very long career as an outspoken advocate of the left-wing, and is most outspoken when it comes to war. He was a reporter for The New York Times for 15 years, between 1990-2005, and received the Pulitzer Prize for his work there in 2002. He also wrote for the far left publication, Truthdig, for 14 years. Here’s his opening paragraph:

“The ruling class, made up of the traditional elites that run the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, is employing draconian forms of censorship on its right-wing and left-wing critics in a desperate effort to cling to power. The traditional elites were discredited for pushing through a series of corporate assaults on workers, from deindustrialization to trade deals. They were unable to stem rising inflation, the looming economic crisis and the ecological emergency. They were incapable of carrying out significant social and political reform to ameliorate widespread suffering and refused to accept responsibility for two decades of military fiascos in the Middle East. And now they have launched a new and sophisticated McCarthyism. Character assassination. Algorithms. Shadow banning. De-platforming.”

From his perspective, it’s the entrenched “traditional elites” on both sides of the political aisle that are behind the censorship. One might consider that despite the outcry against Elon Musk buying a leading share in Twitter, their top ten shareholders before he bought in were all big corporations:

Woo-wee, I see BlackRock in there, who are notable for being “the largest investor in weapon manufacturers“. A very cynical person might start connecting dots and postulate that Twitter content moderation might have a vested interest in curtailing content that was critical of the creation or implementation of said weapons. Does anyone think the corporate shareholders have a say in how content is curated? Matt Taibbi does:

It’s become increasingly clear over the last six years that these people want it both ways. They don’t want to break up the surveillance capitalism model, or come up with a transparent, consistent, legalistic, fair framework for dealing with troublesome online speech. No, they actually want tech companies to remain giant black-box monopolies with opaque moderation systems, so they can direct the speech-policing power of those companies to desired political ends.

~ Matt Tahibbi, Twitter’s Chickens Come Home to Roost, Apr 14 2022.

According to Taibbi certain big companies relish the secret moderation of content on social media because it allows them to pull strings via platforms like Twitter in order to police speech and insure their political ends are met. If this is the case, than what we are witnessing now is the battle between free speech for the people, or relinquishing it in favor of a corporate crafted narrative. Unfortunately for the little guys, we don’t get a check from the corporations in exchange for our right to free speech.

Back to Chris Hedges. Next he addresses how and why he was censored by YouTube:

YouTube disappeared six years of my RT show, “On Contact,” although not one episode dealt with Russia. It is not a secret as to why my show vanished. It gave a voice to writers and dissidents, including Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, as well as activists from Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, third parties and the prison abolitionist movement… It called out the Democratic Party for its subservience to corporate power… It covered Julian Assange in numerous episodes.

That’s got Julian Assange in it. That’s the difference between the milquetoast, faux left that focuses on cosmetic issues among the Lilliputians, and the hard left that risks everything to take on the most powerful people and institutions on the planet. The soft left bravely battles unconscious microaggressions, and tirelessly pounds the white working class into submission, driving them further down the socioeconomic ladder, all the while reminding them that they alone are responsible for the sins of the aristocracy of centuries past. Meanwhile the military industrial complex, multinational corporations, big banks, big pharma, big oil, white collar crime, and student loan sharks get a free pass, a slap on the wrist, or a finger wagging. Promises of alleviating student debt, or anything that would help the struggling, are abandoned as the next soft liberal ushered into power throws their hands up in the air and declares it outside of their jurisdiction. The real left need not apply!

Hedges details how Scott Ritter was recently banned from Twitter. Some of you may remember Ritter as the former UN weapons inspector who, prior to the 2003 “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign on Baghdad, insisted that thorough searches had uncovered no WMDs. We didn’t listen to him then, and were aren’t going to now! His crime was providing authoritative commentary on the current invasion of Ukraine. Corporate approved sources and narratives only, please. OR ELSE!

But those are full-on bans. What about the more elusive and crepuscular shadow ban? Hedges discusses the curiously convenient coincidence that Green Party presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, “lost about half her social media following” overnight in 2016. That put an end to her campaign, by gad, by gee, by golly, by gumbo! Please pay special attention that it is NOT just the far right, the Orange Man, the Nazis, Vampires, Satan, the Sleestak, and the chupacabra that are being banned. It includes the actually progressive left, and possibly anyone who poses a threat to entrenched power and its minions.

No worries. Big tech is only censoring the Sleestak. they won’t come after you.

Hedges documents how “Twitter, Google, Facebook and YouTube used the charge of foreign influence to start employing algorithms and shadow banning to silence critics” of “the Democratic Party leadership”.

Sites that once attracted tens or hundreds of thousands of followers suddenly saw their numbers nosedive… Traffic fell for sites such as Alternet by 63%, Democracy Now by 36 %, Common Dreams by 37 %, Truthout by 25 %, The Intercept by 19% and Counterpunch by 21%. The World Socialist Web site saw its traffic fall by two-thirds. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were all but erased.

Mother Jones, he continues, “suffered a sharp decline in its Facebook audience, which translated to an estimated loss of $600,000 over 18 months”.

We can clearly see that not only do these sorts of bans effect both conservative and true liberal voices (not the watered down, pro-corporate, juice cocktail version they champion], they can also devastate independent and alternative news businesses.

But you might say this is just circumstantial evidence. It could be coincidence, or those news sources could have self-sabotaged by taking wrong-headed, extremist, or highly unpopular views. Well, we can just go back to Parag Agrawal’s attestation that their “role” is “directing attention” to desirable content. If a social media platform intervenes in order to artificially elevate content in searches, that necessarily pushes other content, voices, and businesses off the radar. But there’s more concrete evidence of Twitter deliberately applying suffocating secret bans.

Some companies have openly admitted to using shadow banning in the past, including Reddit, WeChat, and Craigslist. Twitter was also caught out shadow banning tweets.

“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. Twitter was also found, in 2015, to have shadowbanned tweets containing leaked documents in the US.” ~ Wikipedia

For more examples, details, supporting references and links, see the Wikipedia entry here: Shadow banning, Notable Examples. We might surmise that in the last 5 years either these and other companies have abandoned the practice, or else they’ve just made them more difficult to trace. The key is very simple: limit exposure without eliminating it, in which case there is always plausible deniability that nobody was impressed with the content, and didn’t engage.

Hard Evidence:

One of the screenshots of a Twitter internal moderator panel.

The images above are allegedly the user interface Twitter moderators have used to easily penalize and restrict accounts behind the scenes. This, if it is real, is a smoking gun. If you have buttons to remove people’s Tweets from searches or trends, without their knowledge, you are engaged in secret censorship. Who knows what the “compromised” button does. However, I could fake something that looks like this in Photoshop myself in under 15 minutes, so I had to establish its authenticity.

My research indicates it’s true. Twitter acknowledges the backdoor interface is real in a damage-control VICE article that tries to poo-poo it, ridiculing those who see a problem as Trump supporter conspiracy theorists.

First you need to know what you are seeing in those screen shots, and how it came to be exposed to the public. In July 2020 hackers gained control of internal tools, allowing them to take over accounts by resetting emails.

They used the tools you see above to launch a crypto scam, impersonating popular users, such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Behold:

By the time the hack was discovered, over $113,000 had been sent to the bit coin account of the hacker. But the greater damage was to the general public’s trust that Twitter wasn’t using the platform to skew public opinion.

VICE, assuming that the shadow banning is only applied to their political rivals, explained it away thusly:

a “shadow ban” has been a moderation technique used to ban people from forums or message boards without alerting them that they’ve been banned. Typically, this means that a user can continue posting as normal, but their posts will be hidden from the rest of the community. The Twitter blacklists shown in screenshots we published do not prevent a user’s followers or even the general public from seeing their tweets, but accounts put on these blacklists will be prevented from showing up on Twitter’s “trending” page and will prevent them from showing up in search results.

Here VICE merely redefines shadow banning so that it doesn’t include being barred from “trending”, or search results, (or whatever the “compromised” button does). THAT however, is precisely what is meant by shadow banning. It’s putting a user in a sandbox where they can only interact with a portion of the people that already follow them, and can not significantly engage with the general public or grow their audience. It’s confining users Twitter experience to being a glorified email list.

This was the policy when Jack Dorsey was CEO, and before Parag Agrawal committed the company to increasingly controlling how they “direct people’s attention”.

There’s a bit more that I found enlightening:

Twitter also directed us to its “Twitter trends FAQs” page, where it makes clear the platform prevents content from trending if it contains profanity or adult/graphic reference, incites hate, or otherwise violates Twitter’s rules.

Reached by phone, a Twitter spokesperson said the blacklist tags are “not new.”

“We do disclose in this FAQ that accounts that violate the rules are prevented from trending,” the spokesperson said. “This isn’t new and it’s not something that has been hidden, but it’s in the help center.”

They are not just prevented from trending. A quick look at the current Twitter FAQ discloses additional filters:

  • Down-ranking Tweets in replies, except when the user follows the Tweet author.
  • Making Tweets ineligible for amplification in Top search results and/or on timelines for users who don’t follow the Tweet author.

Here, users who are blacklisted are pushed to the periphery or hidden in comments unless the account they are commenting on follows them.

If they don’t tell you they are taking these measures to restrict your visibility, then they are not doing it in the open, but rather in the shadows, hence “shadow banning”. There’s no way to petition them to find out if any of those restrictions are placed on your account, or to get them removed.

Twitter undeniably shadow bans based on their own admission of their filtering and “blacklisting” practices. I don’t see why they deny it. Their defense is going to be that the people it censors deserve it, and without taking those measures would destroy the community. THAT, however, is highly debatable, and critics argue the filters are applied opportunistically, and with bias. I would suspect double standards are rampant, and algorithms are designed to target certain sections of the population while giving others a pass. I would also guess that playing fast and loose with the rules might be considered tolerable, or even laudable, if doing so serves a greater good, such as helping to get a “tyrant” out of office.

It is now known that prior to the last election Twitter censored tweets that shared the Hunter Biden laptop story, which we now know was true, and not the Russian disinformation they claimed. A poll suggested that as many as 7% of Biden voters, who were on the fence, would have switched their vote to Trump had they known about the content of the laptop, and that it was legitimate news. In this way, Twitter may have helped Biden win the election to some degree. Many people would applaud that, because they wanted Trump out by any means necessary. However, we can be sure they wouldn’t want their political rivals to exercise the same editorial power over the platform.

[No, for the record, I didn’t vote for Trump in either election, and the only person I would have voted for was Bernie, if he wasn’t sabotaged by the centrist dems before I got the chance. I’m still annoyed that I didn’t even get the entertainment of Bernie squaring off against Trump in one-on-one debates.]

Is There a Double Standard?

When I looked at the tweets by Jenner and Gabbard I noticed that they were plagued with abusive comments. Under Gabbard’s post, for example …. …. well, I’ve compiled a collection of what Twitter accepts as “a healthy public conversation” so you can see for yourself:

I thought there might be some exception for public figures having to take abuse, and maybe someone like Kamala Harris is similarly insulted and humiliated. I checked a post on abortion, which should surely incur the wrath of conservatives, and after scrolling through dozens of comments, I couldn’t find anything calling her an idiot, a loser, stupid, or telling he to F off, etc.

She’s the Vice President, and in a “protected class”, so, that might make a difference. People definitely make fun of Elizabeth Warren, I thought. Surely she’s gonna’ get some animated GIFs calling her stupid, etc. Nope. I checked a few tweets, and no harassment.

This kind of impression might lead conservatives to think Twitter viewed “healthy conversation” to mean whatever supported a centrist liberal democrat political affiliation, regardless of behavior.

The Babylon Bee was banned for a tweet in which they referred to Dr. Rachel Levine, who identifies as transgender, as “Man of the Year”. This was considered “hate” because it mocks transgender people. [Note that I am NOT endorsing this tweet.]

Surely Twitter wouldn’t allow people to mock Caitlyn Jenner for identifying as a woman. Or would they? When I was looking her up, I came across this tweet from the New York Post.

This is the second comment under the tweet, and it is surely as bad as that from the Babylon Bee:

Here’s a bunch more along the same lines [And, again, I don’t support this kind of tweet].

Why are some tweets that attack trans people cause for banning, and others not? Why is it OK to swear at Tulsi Gabbard, and call her an idiot, stupid, and a Russian asset, etc? If I didn’t know better, and I don’t, I might think bullying her and other conservatives was condoned. This would explain why Stephen Colbert felt no risk in tweeting “Suck it, Elon Musk” and bragging about it on his show. Suck what? Could you say that to someone in a bar? And does Colbert represent the people who speak the languages he had his taunt translated into? What if he’d said that to Kamala Harris, or Dr. Rachel Levine?

Is this the kind of skewed moderation that made Elon Musk think he needs to spend $43,000,000,000 in order to fix it?

The phrase that always gets bandied about is “controlling the narrative”. Are Twitter and other social media platforms committed to free expression and open discourse, or are they invested in shaping opinion and directing outcomes? Let’s take another look at Agrawal’s pronouncement of Twitter’s priorities.

“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment … The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.

Parag Agrawal

The goal here is for the discourse on Twitter to reflect “how the times have changed”. What does that have to do with conversations about fishing tackle, sports predictions, cake recipes, home sunburn remedies, makeup tutorials, or any of millions of topics people discuss online? Nothing directly, so he must mean that all discussions are filtered through the lens of “how the times have changed”. How have the time’s changed? And old tweet of his that was circulated a lot by right wing publications happens to shed some light on this:

People rushed to conclusions and accused Parag of anti-white racism without even noticing that his comment was in quotation marks. The message can be read to equate being white with being racist, which is something we routinely hear from the “woke” community. The defense is that the quote means one should neither equate Muslims with extremists nor whites with racists. But the quote is from a skit on the Daily Show by comedian, Aasif Mandvi, and neither of those interpretations are funny. Stephen Colbert [“Suck it, Elon Musk!”] also performed for the Daily Show, and it has a strong reputation for being on the left. I see it to possibly mean that white people are racists because they equate Muslims with extremists, and therefore they deserve the same treatment. That flips the presumed white perspective on its back, and therefore has humor and poetic justice.

I support the message if it’s just about not cementing people to the worst examples of a group they belong to, but not if it’s blanket projecting anti-Muslim racism on all whites. The ambiguity is part of the humor. However we slice it, it is a bit of a social justice message, and that suggests that “how the times have changed” refers to a paradigm shift away from a presumed white, male, Eurocentric, predominantly Christian worldview to a more inclusive, equitable, multi-racial, and multi-cultural reality.

If that is the case, than “focusing” more on “thinking about how the times have changed” would indicate that Twitter now views all content through a social justice lens, and shuttles it through appropriate filters, with the goal to steer discourse in what Agrawal believes is a progressive direction. In this way, Twitter wouldn’t just be a space to facilitate discussions about whatever topics, but would in addition constructively contribute to a better and more just world. Someone in Agrawal’s position might feel morally obligated to use his influence and power for the benefit of humanity.

Here, the ends justify the means, unless Agrawal’s understanding of what constitutes positive change reflects an incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed perspective. People on the opposite side of the political spectrum also believe that they have the best interests of humanity at heart, and know how to achieve them.

Take special note that judiciously applied powerful filters, or algorithms, could function as impossible to detect shadowy censorship. They merely need to assign numbers to key words to automatically demote them in searches. Nobody is denying this. Individual shadow banning is just a more precise and effective tool.

The most relevant aspect of real free speech here — the kind the Founding Fathers were wise enough to make the First Amendment to the Constitution — is to not let any group, worldview, narrative, paradigm, or belief system dominate the discourse. I would be uncomfortable if Musk, Gabbard, Hedges, Jenner, or Taibbi ran Twitter the same way Agrawal appears to be doing it: steering the flow of public opinion in their own desired directions. Jenner is far too conservative for me; Hedges depresses me because as a former war correspondent, his outlook is bleak AF; I’m nowhere rich enough to be a Libertarian like Musk; and while Gabbard is toward the center, I fear she is drifting further to the right because the left is pushing her there. The person I feel most comfortable with is Matt Taibbi. And that brings me to an important point.

I really respect Taibbi’s writing, humor, knowledge, intelligence, and especially his non-partisan, hard-hitting journalism. So, if he could lord over Twitter, I’d be happier about that than Agrawal doing it. However, Taibbi wrote a piece criticizing the Biden administration for fear-mongering about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turned out he was wrong, the threat was real, and he later had to apologize and admit his mistake (which I give him a lot of credit for, especially as other news sources never do it). The point is that none of us sees the complete picture, no matter how smart, experienced, or informed we are. And that’s why we need a free speech platform in which no group is allowed to dominate, and why rules of moderation need to be transparent, cautious and reasonable, and must be applied evenly, or not at all.

As I wrote in my article of 2017 defending free speech:

Free speech is a truce between all the different groups with their competing perspectives, narratives, beliefs, cultures, convictions, and even ideologies. Everyone is allowed to have their opinion, and nobody is allowed to silence anyone else. The biggest risk, of course, is that the most powerful group will silence all opposition as blasphemy, heresy, a threat to the very fabric of society, subverting authority, or an all-purpose condemnation, such as was used to sentence Socrates to death: corrupting the youth. Free speech favors the underdog, novelty, alternative perspectives, and thus progress, which might all be squelched as opposition to the state, the status quo, the standing order, common sense, or whatever ideology or ruling body.

Me, The Argument for Free Speech & Against Censorship. My basement blog, 2017.

Setting the record straight on shadow banning

The above is the title of Twitter’s own company blog post addressing the issue. There is information in here I wish I’d known about before. They start off with the same sleight of hand VICE used in their article to dismiss the photos of internal tools used to shadow ban users.

I love that they “found” a definition which they declared was the “best”, as if it were some alien notion they needed to research, and not an integral part of their daily operation.

The statement that they don’t ban based on political viewpoints or ideology, by the way, is a mere assertion that they would have to say especially if they did to that.

Here, they just redefine shadow banning to mean a complete ban where only you can see your own material, which is worse than being banned outright, because you don’t even know it happened. They step around the fact that they will severely reduce someone’s presence without telling them, which is what I, for one, always considered shadow banning. And they do this in the shadows. So, it is not a complete and visible ban, it is a secret one that gets the job done, hence, a shadow ban.

What words then do we use for this kind of policy? How about “squelching”? “Shrinking”?

Ranking also means stripping of rank. Of particular concern is the notion of a “bad-faith actor”, which may be quite subjective. If you are trying to build your following on Twitter, to have a presence for your business, or to not get shut down behind the scenes, pay attention to what’s next:

#1 is merely a potential hurdle for new users. #2 and #3 are chilling. Part of this is merely guilt by association. Regardless of the content of what you tweet yourself, you are placed within a context in which you are ranked purely by your relation to other users.

And there’s an interesting notion that becomes very clear here. You might be better off with 10 followers than 10,000, depending on who they are, because if they are determined to be “bad-faith actors”, either because of their behavior or their opinions (though Twitter will deny the latter), then you are demoted. The same goes for likes, retweets, quote retweets, and so on.

All Twitter would have to do to curate discourse so that their own convictions took precedence above all others would be to ascribe negative points to any rival viewpoints. Armed with this knowledge, and knowing that Twitter has a centrist, liberal, “woke” agenda, if I were a business and I wanted to reach customers, I would cynically tailor my interactions to appease the algorithm. Knowing it now, one shouldn’t follow people like Bret Weinstein, or Jordan Peterson. To be safe, one shouldn’t engage with family, friends, or associates unless they are woke, and support centrist democratic candidates.

The supplied evidence that it works is that there are fewer abuse reports. Well, imagine if you will that Twitter had been “shrinking” centrist democrats on principle. Tulsi Gabbard would receive less obscene and bullying tweets. You will have much less abuse reports between the Hatfields and the McCoys if you censor one or the other side.

Even in the most well-intentioned hands, an ability to promote or demote people based purely on their relations to others would eventually become skewed. Imagine if a Christian group took control of Twitter, and stated that they weren’t interested in upholding free speech, but rather in cultivating healthy conversations [about Jesus, but not necessarily on the face of it]. Additionally, it is up to their discretion to secretly shrink people’s visibility based on what they believe represents goodness. Do you think that Christianity would slowly become the most popular religion on the platform?

Wait, there’s more filters, and some you might have seen in action. This part is a whopper:

The red flag here is that there are “policies” and especially “human review processes” that open the floodgates to partisan and ideological bias (more about this explicitly in the next section), and those are combined with “machine learning” to quell content “without waiting” for people to report it.

Somehow, despite these wonderful devices, which are completely non-partisan, there were all those really nasty comments in response to Tulsi Gabbard’s tweet, or the one about Caitlyn Jenner.

Twitter Employees Spill the Beans on Shadow banning

‘One strategy is to shadow ban so you have ultimate control. The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don’t know they’ve been banned, because they keep posting and no one sees their content … So they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it.’

A.Vadrevu, a former Twitter software engineer

A lot of people will find that they’ve experienced just this on the receiving end.

I share this information with some reservation, because I’m just not very comfortable with Project Veritas, or the way they gather their information. As with Twitter’s misuse of moderation tools for the ostensible greater good, Project Veritas plays dirty in the name of getting at the particular truths they seek. The Twitter employees they spoke with, at a Twitter party, didn’t know they were being recorded, and some of them seem to have their guard down because they’ve been plied with alcohol. Very conspicuously, people ingratiated themselves to these workers, only to exploit them for their own purposes.

Stealth recording people about stealth banning people? Perhaps it’s fighting fire with fire.

Twitter’s reaction to the Project Veritas expose was as follows:

The individuals depicted in this video were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter. We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a predetermined narrative.

a spokesperson for Twitter

That sounds pretty persuasive. Case closed. Everybody move on. Er, unless you take the time to analyse it.

From the standpoint of debate, this is the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack. Rather than tackling the specific allegations, and reassuring the public that Twitter does not engage in shadow banning, they sought to discredit the sources as deplorable, and thereby merely insinuate that what they say is false. Significantly, they do not deny any of it. Nobody speaking in an official capacity for Twitter would admit to shadow banning, in which case it is inevitable that the employees speak in a personal capacity. An investigation into shadow-banning necessarily is looking for evidence of shadow-banning, and hence has a predetermined narrative. Merely pointing out the obvious tells us nothing.

I just discovered an article in Forbes — Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech? — addressing this, when I tried to find more context for the quote. According to Kalev Leetaru:

When asked whether the company unilaterally denied the allegations of “unwritten rules” and political bias in its content review teams that determine what content is considered a violation of its rules, the company responded to several other questions, but did not issue a denial or any other comment regarding the bias statements beyond denying the existence of “shadowbanning,” nor provide further comment regarding the question of bias or reviewer composition.

~ Kalev Leetaru, Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech? Forbes, 2018

[Let us take a moment and appreciate that the sentence above is longer and more arduous to read than anything I’ve written in this article.]

Twitter refused to answer whether violation of its rules was determined by political bias. Instead they just deny shadow banning, but we know that they have merely redefined the meaning.

Leetaru brought up other astute points I haven’t seen anywhere else.

When asked whether Twitter would consider releasing its full set of guides, manuals, documentation, tutorials, training materials and all other materials given to its reviewers or a justification for why it believes this material cannot be released, the company did not respond.

~ Kalev Leetaru, Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech? Forbes, 2018

Such materials would show whether there was a political or ideological bias, even perhaps an unintentional one. If the goal is to be unbiased and nonpartisan, perhaps such a review would help Twitter achieve its stated goal of a “healthy conversation”.

Twitter also declined to respond when asked whether the company would be open to convening an external panel of academics and other experts from outside the company, providing them a large dataset of tweets and accounts it has limited, deleted or otherwise taken action on, and allowing them to produce a summary report for public distribution that would assess Twitter’s accuracy and biases.

~ Kalev Leetaru, Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech? Forbes, 2018

Can’t have that! Not in the name of non-partisan, non-ideological monitoring!

Leetaru also mentions that Twitter refuses to release demographic information concerning the “gender, race, languages spoken, countries they hail from, self-identified political, social, religious and other affiliations” of their reviewers, which might be useful in discovering “hidden biases that can lurk unnoticed”.

With that in mind, what else did the Twitter employees say in the video?

Here we have someone whose job was to review content saying that he would ban an account if someone was pro-Trump.

When asked why shadow banning was dangerous, a former software engineer replied:

He mentioned that if you are “shadow banned” you can still like stuff, retweet, favorite, and see everything, but you just have the impression that nobody is engaging with you, when the reality is that nobody is seeing you. In his own consideration, the practice is unethical. Making shadow banning increasingly difficult or impossible to detect is essential to its efficacy, and necessary to protect the company.

This fellow makes it rather easy to visualize. He’s answering a question about using shadow banning to silence Trump supporters and conservatives.

He’s saying they have a filter for Trump supporters or conservatives. If this is true, it operates on the level of an algorithm which has the same effect of manual shadow banning, but on a broader and less personal level. This is, again, the only tool needed to secretly bury content that has not violated any of Twitters guidelines.

What portion of employees at Twitter are Trump supporters?

For someone like me, who is not a Trump supporter, the problem arises that I’m also not a Biden or Hillary Clinton supporter (I voted for Bill back in the day, and then Al Gore). And while I’m not a conservative, I don’t subscribe to the “woke” perspective either. I’m starting to think I’m just an inveterate non-conformist by nature when it comes to things like art or ideas. This can confuse people, and they will assume that if I’m not pumping a fist for Biden, I must be a gun-totin’, Trump-votin’, alt-right, snake-ownin’, white soopremascist! Yeeeeee-haaaaaw! And so I can get filtered by people like that Mo guy, who doesn’t have the time, or the scope, to tell the difference. And sometimes if you are a little ahead of the curve, people think you are behind it, or just eccentric. None of that means it’s OK to pull that sort of stunt on Trump supporters, or anyone.

To the degree these employees can be trusted to be mostly telling the truth, they established that: there is shadow banning; there is a subjective element; the company is overwhelmingly of a singular sociopolitical perspective; and the banning can be done because of people’s views rather than their behavior.

I’d like to think this is not as bad as all that, as in Twitter wasn’t just deleting Trump supporters because they, themselves are democrats. I’ll take it for what it is, which is a bunch of people at a Twitter party talking about their jobs to strangers. There was a lot of “leading the witness” and making the people feel important or connected because of their work. However, after watching the segment a second time, to get screenshots and quotes, I find it more credible than the first time I watched it, because my other research seems to corroborate it.

You can be your own judge, and view the video, below. There is more content about the government pressuring Twitter to censor individuals, and about algorithms filtering for specific words, including to identify “red necks”, that I didn’t have time to delve into here:

Conclusion: Downsizing People With Impunity

I come away from this knowing that Twitter absolutely shrinks people’s visibility, secretly making them almost invisible, but giving them the ability to use enough actions that they will not know for sure that they are not just extremely unpopular. While Twitter can squelch a user, making their participation on Twitter futile, and without notifying them, they don’t officially call this “shadow banning” and have no published term for it.

And that is why I suggest the word “downsizing” as in the movie of the same name, where people were shrunk to the size of a finger in order to minimize their carbon footprint and maximize how far their money would stretch.

This just perfectly encapsulates what Twitter routinely does to its users. [Screenshot from Downsizing]

I also learned that there is an internal interface with buttons that easily allow moderators to instantly restrict user’s visibility, downsizing their presence.

On top of this, the whole platform is rigged so that certain content rises to the surface, and other content sinks, which makes laser shadow-banning almost unnecessary, and is impossible to detect. This is done with machine learning, algorithms, and human intervention. An element of fallibility would be almost impossible to avoid, and the company does not allow access to their training, documents, and other materials relative to how people moderate or review content. They similarly refuse to release information about the demographics of their reviewers, or allow outside expert observation.

The CEO’s conviction in creating “healthy conversations” rather than upholding free speech unequivocally indicates a company policy of curating and steering discourse to desired ends, rather than letting it develop organically.

If we give the hidden camera statements of Twitter employees and credence, there is a political and ideological mono-culture that actively exercises its beliefs by manipulating ranking and shadow banning (downsizing).

Even with multiple mechanisms ostensibly designed to foster “healthy conversations” there are patently hurtful comments allowed to stand below tweets by, or about, Tulsi Gabbard and Caitlyn Jenner (including anti-trans harassment galore of Jenner). Here, at worse, one might get the impression that not only does Twitter not protect conservative personalities, but tacitly condones bullying them.

Shadow-banning is just one of the several powerful tools for “controlling the narrative”. It gives Twitter and other platforms enormous power to curate opinion, and the only thing stopping them from using it for those ends is their altruism, incorruptibility, indifference to profit, and otherwise being saints. Anyone else would doubtlessly use that kind of an undetectable super power for personal gain. Thank God the ring is in the hands of literal angels pretending to be mere mortals in order to bring peace upon the Earth. And even if their integrity was impeccable, they would still suffer from not possibly having enough scope and understanding of the world at large, and reality, to be capable of mediating over an unbiased forum.

The solution is to allow complete transparency: to see how the algorithms work; for outside experts to review their guides, manuals, training and other materials; and to allow observation of the moderation and reviewing processes…

Users should be notified of the downsizing restrictions placed on their accounts. As it stands, shadow banning, especially when based on political or ideological motives of the moderator, could cause the user mental suffering related to their impression that they are reviled by the community, and the stress and confusion around not knowing if there has been meddling or not. Where their business is concerned, they may have suffered serious losses.

Downsizing people without telling them is unethical, and therefore all the secret restrictions on accounts should be removed.

In my opinion, actual abuse, bullying, bots, and so on should be the focus of banning and downsizing, and not views that are inconvenient, challenging, opposing, or that just don’t clamber aboard the bandwagon of the season.

Shadow banning is absolutely real, and because It is not a tool that anyone can be trusted with, it is dangerous. Further, secretly crushing people’s online presence without notification or an opportunity to appeal is inherently pernicious. If we care about free speech, but only want to prevent egregious cases of bullying, then a tool that is itself a poisonous kind of stealth bullying needs to go.

Lastly, shadow banning is a tiny threat compared to what can be achieved purely through the manipulation of algorithms, or the backdoor social credit system that ranks every users by who they follow, retweet, like, mute, ban, and vice-versa, etc. Those are the atomic and plutonium bombs, whereas shadow banning (or “downsizing”] is a more targeted weapon used to take out select individuals. You can have all the benefits of being “shadow banned” without it even being applied to you, if you are on the wrong side, or outside, or challenge the desired narrative and the interests of those behind it.

It’s time to stop trusting that those who secretly control the discourse behind the scenes are saints. Instead, we needs a system for allowing free speech where we don’t need to trust anyone, that in its design and implementation makes it impossible to manipulate for ulterior, or benign but imperfect reasons. That kind of free speech forum would be a game changer.

~ Ends

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15 replies on “Is shadow banning Real? If So, Is it Pernicious, or Do the Ends Justify the Means?

  1. Yikes. The stuff of nightmares! You cleared up some things for me & answered several of my questions. I wonder what’ll happen with Twitter. Will something else replace it? These things seem to have life cycles & Twitter’s been around a long time. Its demographics are changing. But who knows? With enough money behind the people pulling the strings nearly anything can happen. I wish I had confidence that whatever happens will be good (or at least not worse). Thank you for doing this research & analysis, & for sharing it here. 👏👏👏

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cheers, Robin:

      I think mostly what I really gained from writing that piece was more clarity, and knowing a bit more what I and all of us are up against. I find WordPress is by far the best platform for me. I only use Twitter because of NFTs, which so far isn’t do me a lick of good anyways.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your article was esp well-timed, for me. I’m deciding this week whether to ditch Twitter & Instagram or not. They do me little good & make me feel very bad. The only reason I’ve kept trying with them was bec of Redbubble’s promotion-model. It demands successful member promotion in order to be given Redbubble’s promotion (which does sometimes generate sales). Posted about that yesterday, will do an update when I make up my mind. Re WordPress: It’s a better fit, has better tools. My only WP-gripe is the Blockhead Editor. But so far I can avoid it. 😂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha, ha, ha, Robin. I hated the “Blockhead Editor” at first, and I really don’t understand why they can’t keep the classic editor for those who want it. I once made a post that used all the blockhead features and thus spent a day or two mastering the damned thing. Now I’m used to it, but still find it clunky.

        Glad to hear you get some sales on Redbubble!! If one wants to sell NFTs, you have to have a big Instagran and Twitter following if you want to be considered by outlets like SuperRare. I might like Twitter better if I weren’t being made invisible by the algorithms, mostly because I’m not a true believer in the dominant narrative. Never was, and never will be.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It’s easy to avoid the Blockhead. Normally I ♥️ learning new things but I’m dragging my feet now on principle. I don’t need that editor. It’s clunky, yes, esp for simple posts (text + image).
        Overcomplicated interfaces : Grrrrr!

        Thnx about RB. 82 cents! 😏 Still, worth the rush.

        Yeah, I get the follower thing, esp for NFTs. But in real life if someone’s trailing around behind me I try to lose them. Being followed online? Too spooky. At a 100 followers I start looking for safe-spaces. At 200 I usually bolt and run. Silly, but there it is. 🤷🏻‍♀️

        Oh – if I do leave Twitter & Instagram I’ll follow you from my personal accounts so you don’t lose a follower. 🤗

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t been able to get any real traction with Instagram either. Anything I share now gets about as many likes and anything I shared my first week on the platform, around 4-5 years ago. WordPress is the best because the Reader doesn’t use an algorithm, and people here like to read.


      1. That’s exactly what happens to me. Btw 10-20 likes per picture same commenters. New people don’t get to see my posts regardless of hashtags. I used to get more engagement before Meta took over.


      2. That’s better than Twitter for me. Anything I share there right now gets <10 likes, and most are getting 0-3. And there I'm in a digital art community, and being completely shut out.


    1. Thanks, Jean. Yeah, I checked that site out a couple days ago. It says that I have no shadow-ban, but the New York Times does, You can enter any Twitter account to check it, and I did more than a dozen. I seriously doubt the NYT has a “ghost ban”.

      If that site and others like it ever worked, I don’t think they do anymore. Doubtlessly Twitter has an algorithm to deal with their queries.

      But thanks, anyways, it took me a while to track down these shadow-ban checker sites. Meanwhile, yesterday one of my followers retweeted one of my tweets with my art. She has over 6,000 followers. Hours later, her retweet had zero likes.

      Anything I share now gets roughly 0-5 likes. Compared to when I first started out with just a handful of followers, that’s pathetic.


  2. Apparently now Musk owns Twitter people who previously seemed somehow “marked” as undesirables and shadow banned are experiencing more traffic and exposure all of a sudden. Funny that. I certainly found myself “marked” after a point, and then the platform became virtually useless for promotion of my work. I was able to verify that I had been shadow banned, both on Twitter and Facebook, by having friends and family confirm they were not able to see my posts in the feed and, in some cases, had been made to unfollow me. I had also been made to unfollow others and even unlike tweets. There were certain tweets I could go back to virtually daily to like again. Made it the platform unusable even without all the crazy shit heads. Now, maybe, it might be worth a damn again. I am watching carefully to see if it might be worth going back for work only. We’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, all of a sudden my tweets are reaching more than just a handful of people at most. I am entertaining an idea that Twitter is busy deleting some of their algorithms to destroy the evidence. Just a notion of mine. Nothing to back it.

      You likely were shadow-banned, especially if you were critical of any of the core notions of the for-the-plebs-narrative we are supposed to subscribe to unquestioningly. And I know you take issue with some of those that are just a wee tad touchy.

      Funny, Shawn King quit Twitter after announcing that Elon took it over in order to reaffirm, get this, “white supremacy”. Gotta’ love today’s liberals fighting tooth and nail against the very thing that was most dear to liberals and the underprivileged for hundreds of years: free speech. But I gather people like Shawn King can’t handle being question when they make ridiculous and hateful comments that are slanderous and ludicrous.

      If there’s free speech on Twitter, the narrative-we-must-all-believe-or-else (which also offers nobody anything in terms of self-betterment) may finally be lifted off the world like a curse.

      It’s the first thing that’s happened in a while that gives me some hope.

      Liked by 1 person

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