On visibility in social media

Erik Strand, 31.07.2022
Last updated 07.08.2022

Widespread censorship in social media is a well known phenomenon. One finds a sample of articles exemplifying this censorship here.

There exist kinds of censorship which is more subtle than the obvious censorship, including removing posts or even accounts. This Wikipedia article offers a first introduction to the concept of shadow banning. Pål Steigan, editor of steigan.no, one of the most read Norwegian alternative media, has written an article (in Norwegian) on shadow banning. In his article, Steigan mentions that Facebook not only admits that they have a system for shadow banning; they brag about it and have patented it. The patent is registered at the US patent office, United States Patent and Trademark Office, and can be found here.

The summary of the patent says the following:

«Users of social networking system are provided with user interface elements permitting the user to post comments on pages within the social networking system. Pages may be provided for any non-user entity, including for example, pages for businesses, products, concepts, etc. Embodiments provided herein permit page moderators to ban certain content from being displayed on a page. For example, the social networking system may receive a list of proscribed content and block comments containing the proscribed content by reducing the distribution of those comments to other viewing users. However, the social networking system may display the blocked content to the commenting user such that the commenting user is not made aware that his or her comment was blocked, thereby providing fewer incentives to the commenting user to spam the page or attempt to circumvent the social networking system filters.»

In other words: The system takes care of blocking content in such a way that the users do not discover that it is blocked. In this way they get fever incentives to circumvent the system’s content filters.

Steigan also gives his own example and testimony on shadow banning in practice. He writes (my translation:

“For almost two years we have experienced increasing problems regarding spreading artcles on Facebook. This began in October 2017 when we could witness a decline in spreading from about 120.000 per week to under 30.000. But since spring 2019 it has turned far worse. Even though the number of people following steigan.no has been doubled since 2017, the weekly spreading has fallen below 10.000. While we earlier saw that an article reached more than 10.000 without problems and sometimes could reach 50.000 or more, we now have to stuggle to reach more than 2.500. This is not due to decreasing support. It is the outcome of steigan.no being victim of what is called shadow banning. This is a way of blocking a website or person that is designed so that it shal not be immediately clear to the shadow banned or the readers that one in censored.”

So far Steigan’s example. I have myself experienced what can only be understood as blatant shadow banning. I have written about this in this post in Norwegian.

I am one of the users of the political party The Coastal Party’s Facebook page and update it regularly. As I wrote in the metioned post dated 19.11.20, I had seen a sudden decline in the number of people who had been reached via The Coastal Party’s Facebook page. On the day I wrote the post, I was logged in to Facebook and could see how many people had been reached by the Coastal Party’s Facebook page during the last 28 days. I could also see that this number represented a decline by 74 %. The figures did not explicitly mention which period in comparision to which it represented such a decline by 74 %. I will guess that it was the 28 days period before the recent 28 days period. I saved this statistics in form of a screenshot.

Such a decline can have several causes. The quantity and quality of the posts, as well as fluctuations in what catches people’s attention, can of course be contributing factors. However, a decline in 74 % from one foir week period to the next is drastic. Even though I cannot prove any kind of manipulation, I hereby share the statistics for evereyone interested.

I conclude with an example from Twitter, where Gaute Adler Nilsen (@GauteNilsen) examplifies what shadow banning means.