What Is Shadow Banning On Twitter?

Despite loud accusations Twitter hasn't shadow banned anyone, and certainly not due to people's political affiliation. But they did hide some accounts for two more embarrassing reasons.

Last week the US president, alluding to a poorly-researched article by VICE News, accused Twitter of “shadow banning prominent Republicans”.

The US president is wrong — Twitter doesn’t intentionally hide accounts based on political affiliation. But there actually was something screwy happening to certain accounts, including those of some Republican figures.

And if it’s affecting a lot of Republican users, Twitter implied in a blog post, that’s because those users are linked to patterns of abuse.

What’s a shadow ban?

A shadow ban, used on sites such as Reddit, is a form of ban that isn’t immediately obvious to the user. The user is allowed to keep posting, but their posts don’t show up to anyone but themselves.

A shadow ban buys the site’s moderators a little time: If the user doesn’t immediately notice that no one is responding to their posts, they might spend more time harmlessly posting into the void, instead of creating a new account and posting their unwanted content. So a shadow ban is a tool against abuse and spam.

Did Twitter shadow ban?

In a blog post about the supposed shadow ban, Twitter says no:

We do not shadow ban. 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). And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology.

You could say that Twitter is untrustworthy, but there’s no real reason to believe that. The site has the ability to ban obvious Nazi accounts, but it only consistently bans those accounts in countries where it’s forced to by law.

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The company bends over backward to placate the right wing. It would be out of character, and even less strategic than usual, for the service to shadow ban sitting members of US Congress. This is the company that decided not to ban the US president for open threats of violence that obviously violate Twitter’s terms of service.

But what did Twitter do?

Twitter does make some accounts easier to discover than others. Their search results, the company says, favour popular tweets, and disfavor “tweets from bad-faith actors who intend to manipulate or divide the conversation”. That’s a pretty loaded description, so Twitter unpacks some factors that go into identifying “bad-faith actors”:

  • How old an account is, and whether the user filled out their profile
  • Whom the account is following and retweeting
  • Who’s muted, blocked, followed and retweeted the account

The specifics are still mysterious, partly for the good reason that if Twitter explained every detail of the algorithm, it would be easier to circumvent it. But Twitter defends the practice with a killer line: “We know this approach is working because we see fewer abuse reports and spam reports.”

It sure sounds like Twitter is implying something: If a famous account seems to disappear from search results and follower suggestions, it’s probably because they’re linked to abuse and spam. (Twitter recently started blocking all users with “Elon Musk” in their display name, because Musk fans fell for scam tweets from fake Musk accounts.)

But then things got confusing when a Twitter bug temporarily blocked a lot of accounts from being auto-suggested in search results. Twitter says no one got blocked from normal search results. But to be fair to the complainers, auto-suggest matters a lot more on Twitter, where usernames can be hard to remember. Auto-completing usernames is more immediately noticeable than auto-completing words in a Google search.

But “this impact was not limited to a certain political affiliation or geography,” says Twitter. “Some Democratic politicians were not properly showing up within search auto-suggestions as result of this issue. And most accounts affected had nothing to do with politics at all.”

Again, if they were lying, that would be very out of character. If the company wants to punish right-wingers, it has many more effective ways to do so. Instead the company avoids punishing politicians’ accounts even for straightforward violations. But breaking the site with a bug is in character.

But this article won’t convince some people, who interpret everything as a conspiracy against them, partly because they don’t understand how the world works. Recently, Republican celebrity and former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke temporarily took his account private. You can’t retweet a private account. But Clarke’s followers immediately tweeted that Clarke, who brags when Twitter doesn’t ban him for threatening violence, had been shadowbanned.

Crying “shadow ban!” is an old complaint from people who want more attention, especially extremists. They use it as an excuse when people aren’t listening to them, because they refuse to accept that everyone is just over their crap. A 2011 Urban Dictionary definition for “shadowban” includes this satirical example sentence: “I’ve been posting right-wing crap all over the forum, but no one is biting. I think I’ve been shadowbanned.”

So don’t worry about getting shadow banned. But if you don’t want to get de-prioritised in search results, consider being less of an abusive pain in the arse.


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