What’s the Twitter ‘shadow ban’ mystery?

The shadow ban may be a tool to silence trolls but it is quelling voices that critique those in power, like James Wilson’s.

ByCherry Agarwal
What’s the Twitter ‘shadow ban’ mystery?
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All of yesterday Twitterati was abuzz with conspiracies about the social media platform trying to silence dissenting voices. A prominent critic of demonetisation and the Modi government, James Wilson, had been ‘shadow banned’. Newslaundry decided to check if this was a mere coincidence or if Twitter was indeed quelling dissenting voices. As it is with such things, we got no clear answers.

On Monday morning, Twitter user @stupidosaur stumbled onto the shadow ban on Wilson’s account when he was looking for a tweet by him. But multiple searches didn’t yield any result.

Unable to locate it, @stupidosaur searched Twitter, the searches showed all other tweets but not the “offending” one.

Newslaundry verified this. Our search results bore no fruit either.

A civil engineer, James Wilson works with the Kerala government’s inter-state water advisory committee. Though he has been on Twitter since 2009, he became a prominent voice on financial data after demonetisation when he tweeted extensively on the ill-effects of the move. Often, he has been referred as the go-to person on demonetisation by several journalists.

With the recent release of RBI data on demonetisation, Wilson’s tweets became popular again. Thus, the selective filtering by Twitter raises some questions given the RBI data showed the government in poor light.

But Wilson’s isn’t the only account with limited audience engagement. Twitter has blocked several other accounts and withheld dozens of tweets of many other users, The Indian Express reported. However, the blocking of accounts and withholding of content in the latter case was initiated due to an official request from the Modi government.

But what does ‘shadow ban’ mean?

Shadow ban, otherwise known as ghost banning or stealth banning, is when social networking services such as Twitter limit audience engagement for content posted by particular users. The users will not know about the ban unless informed by the service provider or another user (@stupidosaur in Wilson’s case). The only indication would be a drop in engagement levels.

So, if you are looking for tweets by a particular user and search “from:newslaundry”, all content posted by the user will show up under Twitter’s “Latest” section. While Twitter’s algorithm-based “Top” section may or may not show the post by the particular user as the top post, it will show under the latest section. For example:

But this doesn’t happen in Wilson’s case. During our search for “from:jamewils” or “jamewils”, Twitter showed no results even though he has over 107,000 tweets. This means all tweets made by Wilson are currently hidden in the “Latest” section, if a person is not particularly looking for it. To access that content you will have to visit the user’s handle, in which case you will be able to see all their tweets. Such search options limit user engagement with content posted by accounts that are shadow banned.

With Twitter not informing users about the implementation of selective filters, opinions expressed by people like Wilson are as good as censored. So, is Twitter intentionally filtering inconvenient voices?

“I came to know about the shadow ban when @stupidosaur pointed it out,” 48-year-old Wilson said. “I don’t know why my tweets were filtered,” he added.

Earlier, The Verge, a technology website, reported that Twitter was using the shadow ban tool to filter out abuse on its platform. It was part of Twitter’s “latest anti-harassment initiative”, the report stated. But the absence of a reason for filtering content in Wilson’s case has become a case of curbing dissent, as being called out by Twitter users.

And that’s not okay, says Wilson, who finds the selective filtering discriminatory.

“I have got no mails from Twitter so far,” Wilson told Newslaundry. To find out the reasons for their selective filtering, Newslaundry reached out to the social media giant who are yet to respond to Wilson’s repeated tweets asking for reasons or acknowledgment.

Responding to our queries about the shadow ban on Wilson’s account, Twitter said, “We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.” With nothing more to add about the selective filtering applied to individual accounts, the mail addressed the banning and withholding of “Kashmir accounts”:

Thank you for reaching out. We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons. Sharing our Country Withheld Content policy for background:

  • Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.
  • We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify affected users.
  • We send individual requests to the LumenDatabase so that anyone can see what type of content was removed and who made the request. References:

o https://lumendatabase.org/notices/14955219 o https://lumendatabase.org/notices/14959825

  • We also publish data pertaining to legal requests in aggregate twice-yearly as part of our Transparency Report.

Hope this helps.

The response from Twitter has still not answered why the selective filtering was turned on for Wilson’s account. As he clarified on Twitter, the filtering is not because of Wilson’s settings, and the social media giant should come clean about the “security” threats Wilson’s tweets were posing.


[UPDATE]

Twitter has withdrawn the shadow ban imposed on Wilson’s account. And, again, it wasn’t Twitter officials who informed Wilson. It was a fellow journalist who reached out to him. “I knew about withdrawal when one journalist friend from Kerala asked me to check,” Wilson told Newslaundry. Stating that “both ban and withdrawal were covert operations”, Wilson said, “They had to take it back. They had no options.”

Wilson was referring to the outpour of support on social media. Where Twitter users not only called out the social media giant’s selective filtering but also showed their support by following Wilson’s account in large numbers.

The author can be contacted on Twitter at @quilledwords.

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