In the murky ether of the internet, social media companies do their best to silence automated bots, trolls and other ugly byproducts of the digital revolution — otherwise, the quality of their online communities suffers. It's pretty easy for companies like Twitter and Instagram to detect obvious spammy accounts, and also to automatically disable or lock the fakes. But what happens when social media giants quietly silence — or shadowban — certain accounts for no apparent reason?
Shadowbanning is, fittingly, a rather shadowy practice, the very existence of which has been debated for several years. In short, it refers to the idea of social media networks intentionally reducing the reach of specific users.
For instance, you might post a photo to Instagram using the same hashtags as always but see only a fraction of the engagement of prior posts. Maybe your images don't show up at all when you — or other users — search for your hashtags, or only your current followers can see those posts, meaning you're unable to reach potential new followers. Perhaps a search for your own username turns up blank.
Shadowbanning hit the headlines in the summer of 2018 when Vice News reported that Twitter's search box didn't autopopulate the names of prominent Republican Party members the same way it did for well-known Democrats. Combined with a widespread misperception that social media companies use a supposed liberal bias to control the information that's displayed in their communities, it's easy to see why people would be suspicious that shadowbanning is affecting the information they can — or can't — see.
What Is Shadowbanning?
At its best, shadowbanning would theoretically cut out bot-type accounts or users who violate terms of service to improve the quality of its communities. At its worst, it might be a nearly invisible type of censorship ... maybe to silence certain ideologies, or perhaps as a nefarious way for companies to insert more sponsored content posts (read: ads) in lieu of real people.
Twitter denied any intentional swaying of its search features. And Instagram has denied shadowbanning as well. Generally, these entities issue statements referring to the algorithms that find and distribute information to the masses; the algorithms automatically attempt to determine what information holds the most value to certain people and make it more or less visible in the community. They also point out that updates to these algorithms may cause a user's influence to wax and wane.
Regardless, those algorithms are trade secrets, and thus, it's not in the best interest of these companies to reveal their inner workings.
How to Avoid Being Shadowbanned
Some pundits say that you can avoid being shadowbanned by simply engaging with the community in a genuine way. That is, don't use automated third-party programs to try and attract more followers, take your time to leave meaningful comments with others, and generally don't behave in a way that violates the company's terms of service.
Self-styled Instagram guru Alex Tooby writes that you might be able to restore your account to its former glory by taking a break for a few days, making sure you're not violating any posting limits, and perhaps by reporting the problem to the tech gurus at Instagram, Twitter or whatever platform you're using.
In the meantime, there's a ton of chatter out there about shadowbanning, some real and some probably imagined, all the way from the realms of entertainment to today's fraught and polarized political scene. It's a shadowy world out there, so take the time to do some research if you think you've been shadowbanned.
In some cases, the remedies seem to work. Other people, though — by algorithmic twists of fate or for darker reasons — may be exiled to the shadows of a community they once held dear, their voices silenced and lost in jumbled networks that include billions of other users.