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Shadow banning and its role in modern day censorship

It is no secret algorithms dominate our online social lives – it is not as if we aren’t making our own decisions when it comes to who we talk to or what media we consume, but it would be wilfully ignorant to ignore how systems have been programmed to categorise, collect, and suggest data just based on our likes and follows. This exposes us to content, people and ideas that we just would not have found on our own – but it begs the questions of how much control do these systems have in restricting what we see? 

This brings us to shadow banning. 

Shadow banning is the decision of a social media platform to partially or wholly obstruct a person’s content from being interacted with – preventing new people from searching for your content, ensuring you do not appear under hashtags or even limiting how often you are suggested as a person to follow are just a few ways this can be achived. Platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok rarely acknowledge the claims of this nature but rather point to their right to remove posts that do not align with their Community Guidelines and how agreeing to use the platform is consenting to their power to do so. 

In the grand scheme of things, having your videos taken down or fewer people finding and engaging content is not the greatest detriment to the world, but there is a significant pattern to who is being shadow banned. If I refer back to Tiktok’s community guidelines, they claim to scrap videos created to facilitate harm onto others but within the guidelines, they make an effort to reiterate that they allow ‘educational, historical, satirical, artistic, and other content that can be clearly identified as counterspeech or aims to raise awareness of the harm caused by dangerous individuals and/or organisations.’ This quote and their statement to show support of the Black Lives Matter movement will come as surprise especially to the number of black creators that have seen their engagement rates fall and their videos be taken down on their app. 

Instagram has shown itself to be just as complicit in this – there has been significant backlash from sex workers, sex educators and often queer inclusive sex-positive spaces on the app. Chante Joseph in her Guardian piece exposed the grey area that is not as clearly defined as Instagram’s no nudity policy where the administrators can flag content as ‘sexually suggestive’; many people argue that this is necessary to ensure children are not exposed to inappropriate content – rather than parents taking accountability or social media platforms at least attempting to introduce any form of age restriction, the onus is placed on creators. But consider, for example, LGBTQIA+ creators; their accounts are providing information that young people who may not have even come out to themselves would otherwise be able to access so they can process and understand their feelings in a healthy space that wasn’t available to them just a decade ago. In essence, these guidelines about what a person is allowed to share is being defined by some arbitrary moral standard where discussions of sex specifically those outside the realm of the heteronormative are something to be protected from, even though there are very few spaces that allow for them in real life either.

Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook all are often steeped in their reputation of being superficial and resting on the self-gratification of people wanting to be seen (which isn’t even itself a bad thing), but besides that they can be used to share ideas, political thoughts and knowledge. So when black creators attempting to inform the masses are restricted from sharing information or when sex workers’ messages on misogyny are inaccessible because their page is considered too ‘sexually suggestive’ (a term not defined so therefore difficult to avoid), the silence is deafening. Shadowbanning is a threat to us because it maintains for us the illusion of control. Yet the whole idea is synonymous with censorship and the obstruction of information. Further, this obstruction is dictated by what platforms see as appropriate so the power we assumed we had in our voices can still be silenced.

Illustration by Emma Hewlett

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