What is shadow banning and what does Elon Musk's X have to do with it?

Content-moderating tactic was lying inside X's code without anyone knowing about it and will be 'fixed soon'

Elon Musk has said that the discovery of a shadow banning code on X indicated there were 'many skeletons in the closet'. AFP
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Elon Musk has said that shadow banning on his social media site X will be “fixed soon”, in an another apparent move to make good on his pledge to make the platform more transparent.

Since paying $44 billion for the company formerly known as Twitter, Mr Musk has worked to ensure his goals in this regard are met, but he has not been able to escape criticism, as he himself has reportedly used the tactic.

Here, we take a look at what shadow banning is, why it matters and how it is being dealt with.

What is shadow banning?

Shadow banning, in simple terms, is used to restrict or limit a user's activity and reach instead of outright banning them – all without informing the user. It is used as a content-moderating technique.

Also known as ghost banning, stealth banning and comment ghosting, this action can result in less or no visibility for a user: for example, a user may appear to be able to post on message boards, but these posts could be distributed in a limited manner or be outright invisible to everyone else.

Its use, therefore, is two-pronged: while it can be used to curb misinformation, hate speech and fake news, platforms can also use it to limit the visibility of users they deem to be critical or unfair to them – or, in extreme cases, even as a form of punishing them.

Mr Musk himself has been accused of using this technique. This week, X was reported to have delayed access to the websites of companies that have been critical of his companies, as well as social media rivals.

How did it originate?

The first mention of the term “shadow ban” was reported to have emerged in 2001 from the blogging site Something Awful, which is also credited for other famous terms “spoiler alert” and “AMA” (ask me anything).

However, while the term did not stick much then, it would have been much different if it were coined in today's age of social media.

The next mainstream mention of the term came in 2012 when users on Reddit accused the platform’s administrators of banning a link to an article on a US blogging site, according to The New York Times.

Since then, the term and its use has evolved to what it is today. It is also associated with cancel culture, or the phenomenon of being ostracised for doing something deemed unacceptable.

Who has been using this tactic?

It is difficult to tell, given that modern shadow banning requires having access to a platform's software and code, which are normally proprietary and heavily guarded – but it is no surprise that the biggest names in the market have been dragged into it.

Meta Platform's Facebook, the world's biggest social media site, has for the past several years been accused of using shadow banning on its platform, but this has been denied repeatedly, including by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Instagram, another Meta-owned platform, appears to use shadow banning in a different and more formal way by deprioritising accounts that it deems to have violated its terms of use or policies. Users who feel their Instagram accounts have been wrongfully restricted can file an appeal to the company.

Generally speaking, many platforms have used shadow banning in one form or another. The likes of Reddit, YouTube LinkedIn and TikTok have all been linked to this tactic, and some companies have been reported to explicitly indicate that they use it in their rules.

When was it discovered on Twitter?

Twitter engineers found it buried deep in Twitter's code, apparently unaware that it was there all the time.

It is unclear when the code was embedded into the platform's system. It could well pre-date Mr Musk's takeover of Twitter since, according to the company, the shadow banning code also applied to the account of Mr Musk, who is obsessed with the reach and engagement of his tweets.

Mr Musk on June 17 confirmed this to be “true”, saying that there were “many skeletons in the closet” of Twitter and that no one knew that this code even existed.

How will X deal with shadow banning?

At the moment, it is unclear. Mr Musk has not commented beyond his most recent tweet. The world's wealthiest person is famous for sending out messages that are short and cryptic or vague, without giving many details.

If Mr Musk is to make good on his transparency and inclusivity pledges, he will have to ensure that shadow banning on X is addressed. He has already made part of X's code public, which, in theory, could have meant that the code was just be waiting to be discovered.

Updated: August 18, 2023, 3:30 AM