Shadow banning is a slowly evolving trend on the internet of social media platforms using algorithmic data to block certain users without fully banning them. The practice is also known as stealth banning or comment ghosting and has been around in different forms since the 80s, but most noticeably entered the public sphere recently during the 2018 elections. During the campaign season, conspiracy theorists voiced their belief that Twitter had been shadow banning Republicans. Accusations were never proven but the event was just the latest in a long line of incidents where users are subjected to unfair regulation from their platform provider.
Robert Walsh is one tech developer who describes the process in his book ‘Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality’: “Say a spammer posts to your board and then they come back to check if it’s still there, and they see it—to them it’s still there—but no one else sees it, so they’re not bothered by it.”
For most people the practice is most noticeable on sites like Instagram, where certain users’ posts may not show up despite using a certain hashtag. The motive behind the actions seems mainly to be a ploy from the platform to discourage problematic users from continuing their posting. It can also be a way to limit the reach of troll or spam accounts by discouraging them from using the site or creating any new accounts.
Whilst it may be surprising to hear of US based sites and apps such as Twitter and Instagram taking part in shadow banning activities, it’s less of a shock to hear Chinese social media platform WeChat has also been accused of such behaviour. The popular social media site services a large amount of the Chinese population with their communication and online shopping needs. The company came under scrutiny in 2016 however when it was realised that key words relating to sensitive issues and topics were failing to appear in any related searches by users.