Policing online communities can be extremely difficult, whether we’re talking about over 2 billion Facebook users or a small forum dedicated to antique clock repair. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg (like Congress did).
One of the many ways to pacify problematic users is to employ a tool called a “shadow ban.” The term originates from a time where internet communities primarily existed in individual, isolated web forums – rather than outright ban a user, a forum moderator would “shadow” ban them. They could read posts, and even make their own as usual. But nobody else in the community could see their posts, or even know that they tried to say something.
It’s as if they became a shadow. Spooky!
On Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted, “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.” So, did Twitter shadow ban prominent Republicans, as Trump alleges?
It doesn’t appear that it did, except in the most technical sense.
A Vice News report published Wednesday found that some prominent Republican Twitter users weren’t showing up in the auto-filling Twitter search box, even if you typed their full name in directly. They still appeared in search results, just not in the auto-populating drop down menu.
For instance: If you started typing “Ronna McDaniel” into Twitter’s search bar, the Republican Party chair’s name wouldn’t auto-populate. Search results for McDaniel, several Republican congress members, and even a spokesperson for Donald Trump Jr. were all impacted, according to Vice News. No users affiliated with the Democratic Party were said to be impacted.
Twitter has since fixed the issue, and those impacted figures should now appear in search results like normal.
Despite appearances, however, this does not appear to be the latest example of the culture war sweeping America.
What does Twitter say?
Twitter’s head of product, Kayvon Beykpour, offered an explanation of what happened through his own Twitter account on Wednesday. In short: Twitter doesn’t do shadow bans, ever, and the search issues were unintentional, according to Beykpour.
Twitter began addressing “healthy public conversation” through a variety of changes earlier this year, he said. “In May, we started using behavioural signals and machine learning to reduce people’s ability to detract from healthy public conversation on Twitter.” Essentially, Twitter is trying to employ user data to make Twitter more usable for people, with this glitch an untintended consequence.
Because of this, he said, “Some accounts weren’t being auto-suggested even when people were searching for their specific name.” The issue was fixed overnight.
CEO Jack Dorsey pointed to Beykpour’s thread, and noted, “It suffices to say we have a lot more work to do to earn people’s trust on how we work.”
Is what happened really a “shadow ban”?
Not in the traditional sense, no. But in a broad sense – sort of, yes.
Wikipedia’s definition is an especially good starting point in this case given that the concept is derived from the internet: “The act of blocking a user or their content from an online community such that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.”
Notably, McDaniel’s Twitter account was still active, and her followers still saw her tweets, and the only aspect of her Twitter account that was impacted was her name auto-populating in a search bar. It was slightly more difficult to find her account, but that’s all.
“The act of blocking a user or their content from an online community” applies here, but only in the broadest possible interpretation.
Her account wasn’t selected by a moderator for exclusion, according to Twitter, but rather fell victim to a flaw in its attempt to use data to improve the service. Furthermore, Twitter says the issue was fixed not long after it was pointed out. And, again, Twitter says it doesn’t do that more traditional shadow ban, at all.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment from Business Insider.
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