What is shadow banning?

Feeling alone on Twitter, like you’re shouting into the darkness? For once, it might not be you, your content might not be getting out there. You might be *looks around, whispers* shadow banned. But what is shadow banning? And how can it affect your social media marketing?

We’re taking quite a risk even discussing this with you – so if you could print off this article and then eat it to avoid detection, we’d be grateful.

The history of shadow banning

So, shadow banning came about in the earliest years of the internet, when bulletin board systems (BBS) for software like Citadel had what they called a “twit bit” for nuisance users. An awkward user would have their access limited, and other users wouldn’t be able to see their posts.

In fact, Reddit used it as their only form of moderating for years.

The Verge describes it as “one of the oldest moderation tricks in the book”…early versions of vBulletin had a global ignore list known as “Tachy goes to Coventry”, as in the British expression “to send someone to Coventry”, meaning to ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.

The problems of shadow banning

The problem begins when you don’t know if you’ve been shadow banned, or why. You might notice less interaction with your tweets or Instagram posts, and assume your content isn’t hitting the mark. You’ll probably only find out if a friendly follower alerts you to the fact that you’re not coming up in a search for your username (or you can check here, if you have your suspicions).

Shadow banning isn’t a new thing – so why is it now up for discussion?

Well, last year a certain Mr Trump accused Twitter of shadow banning prominent Republican politicians, effectively shutting them off from the public. Jack Dorsey (@Jack) was hauled before Congress to explain that wasn’t the case.

“We do not shadow ban,” Twitter said in a blog post Thursday. “You are always able to see the tweets from accounts you follow (although you may have to do more work to find them, like go directly to their profile).”

So, what Twitter is doing isn’t shadow banning. They’re just not auto-populating a search – meaning, they’re not throwing up suggestions when you have a look for someone. But there are many victims of this. *Update to August 2020, and I created a new Twitter account and off I went following lots of new people – instantly thwarted. My account wasn’t showing up in the search at all, and it took about 7 days for Twitter to seemingly acknowledge the account wasn’t spam!*

Some of blame can be laid at the door of a huge blocklist that emerged via BlockBot as a result of GamerGate, but it’s evolved and spread to “anyone deemed to be engaging in wrong groupthink”. It’s meant the most bizarre blocks and omissions occurring – the Welsh naturalist and TV presenter Iolo Williams, to cite a perfectly random example, who we were able to find via a search on the desktop platform but not on the Android app.

So we can blame algorithms, but if the basis for the algorithm pushing your account into the shadows is based on “behavioural signals”, as Kayvon Beykpour put it in his 2018 tweets addressing the issue, then what are those signals? Apparently some of it is down to the positivity of your Twitter interactions. AI thinks you’re not playing nicely, you may end up out in the darkness.

Another reason for shadow banning is how much you tweet. If the AI thinks you’re tweeting too much, it’ll assume you’re a bot, and block you accordingly.

How can this affect your business?

It’s obvious that being on Twitter’s shadow banned list isn’t ideal for your business. If you’re advertising your services or goods on social media then if you can’t get your message out there, that’s pretty disastrous. Especially if social media marketing is your only method of advertising.

Twitter has performed a “fix” for this, and this will help some accounts come out from the shadows. Alternatively, you can just wait it out (we did this in May 2020 for a new client too). Shadow bans last for anything from 24-48 hours (and counting). Another message, from a Reddit thread discussing the issue, suggests that the worst case scenario is burning the account down completely and starting anew. Not ideal for a business.

We’ll be following this with interest over the next few months to see if there are any developments. In the meantime kids, keep your tinfoil hat ready, just in case. The truth is out there.