After being shadowbanned on Reddit after just 17 days, I wrote an article about the experience. I realized after writing it that many people might not even know what shadowbanning is.
What is Shadowbanning?
The urban dictionary’s top definition states that “shadowbanning” is:
Banning a user from a web forum in such a way that the banned user is unaware of the ban. Usually takes the form of showing that user’s posts/profile/etc. only to that user; other users never see them. Considered underhanded chicken-shit behavior.
In other words, when you’re shadowanned, you don’t even know it. It’s probably the most passive-aggressive moderation tactic on the internet.
Shadowbanning is erroneously referred to as “hellbanning.” In reality, shadowbanning is more akin to purgatory. For all you non-religious (or at least non-Catholic) readers, just know that the analogy is more fitting because your soul can be petitioned out of purgatory. Likewise, you can appeal a shadowban. You can also create another account to bypass a shadowban, so there’s some reincarnation imagery in there, too.
Hellbanning is more of an IP ban, when your entire IP address is “blacklisted” by a server. All attempted communication with that website, forum, or game fails. I saw a few publishers IP banned on JustinTV back in the day, usually a result of streaming copyrighted material like NFL games and pre-release movies.
There are workarounds to a true hellban, but they involve changing your IP address, and the easiest solution is to head to the nearest Starbucks.
Now, that’s a hell ban.
Are Shadowbans Ever Lifted?
Rarely, yes. On sites like Reddit, the process is arduous and humiliating. The user honestduane was released from user purgatory in Spring 2014, but not without some backroom negotiations with admins and a public recantation. In late 2014, freebsdgirl‘s shadowban was lifted when she proved that a real name she posted on Reddit was already publicly available on GitHub. Exposing real names (even your own) is a big no-no on Reddit, but at least one mod named Brett Wilcox officially did it last year for the sake of transparency.
According to Brett, the shadowban is used when Reddit mods “are concerned that there will be retaliation from the user in question.” He stated that “[we] don’t want to deal with someone who will create a dozen accounts after getting a notification that their account has been banned.” Brett reminds us that since the admins don’t want to alert spammers to their shadowban (thereby encouraging them to work around it), a shadowbanned user is never notified of his/her status.
However, Brett also says that “[Reddit] will always respond to banned user requests,” adding that they “added the ability a while back to document why someone was banned and we typically put a link or reason as to why the ban was implemented.”
That is completely false, at least in my case. My request for shadowban clarification hasn’t been answered, and the request itself doesn’t even show up in the shadowban graveyard. Maybe Brett Wilcox was only talking about his subreddit, but this merely points to the creeping federalism happening at Reddit.
Sidebar: “Reddit Inc.” is Shadowbanning You, Not the Mods
Mods are just loyal users with special powers, and it’s a pretty thankless job for the tiny bit of esteem they gain from moderating threads full of trolls, pedants, and weirdos.
The best thing about Reddit is that anyone can create a new subreddit. The same way Facebook allows people to create and share their own little blogs with friends, Redditors can create their own little message boards and moderate them. Go ahead, think of a fan club, hobby, or otherwise obscure topic and there’s probably a subreddit for it.
The problem, though, is that central admins (who outrank mods) control the killswitch for all user accounts. Having no familiarity or personal relationships with subredditors, they shadowban those users from afar based solely on data.
Imagine if the U.S. Supreme Court viewed all crimes equally. One day, a shoplifter gets the death penalty. Local authorities know the thief. He’s not a bad guy, just a little misguided. A stern lecture about the rule he broke and an ultimatum regarding his freedoms should do the trick. If “he ain’t from around here,” the guy can be questioned more thoroughly by local authorities to make sure he’s not there to make trouble. Irreconcilable problems can then be funneled up the authority ladder.
Right now, those local authorities (subreddit mods) are getting blamed for the rather lazy and automated tactics of the federal body (Reddit, Inc). This has to stop. Instead of Redditors whining about mods having too much power, they should be picketing about how little power the mods have in making decisions on shadowbans and content direction. Nobody should have all the power in a shadowban (mods included), but mods should at least be consulted before a ban takes place.
The only mod I ever dealt with at Reddit was Lexilogical, who was cool enough to at least let me know I’d been shadowbanned. I don’t blame the WP mods for banning me, I blame the Reddit, Inc. admins. I also blame the admins for not telling me why, since I only ever posted a few links, never trolled a page, and provided lots of positive votes and feedback to other users. I admittedly used a lot of foul language, but hey, it’s the internet.
Who Else Shadowbans?
Reddit isn’t the only community to leverage shadowbans, it’s just the most recognizable. It seems like 2014 was the Year of the Shadowban. The term started popping up more in threads, which can logically be attributed to increases in shadowban frequency. Again, I’d love to see a Reddit transparency report on their practices, with a special section on wrongful bans resulting from automated anti-spam methods, but that likely won’t happen.
Shadowbanning is practiced by bitcointalk, Tumblr, Steam, and even YouTube. Update (3/20): A reader emailed me his friend’s video showing how comments had been flagged as spam on YouTube and hidden. What’s more alarming is that the guy was the channel’s broadcaster, so his entire account was locked up and he couldn’t communicate with his subscribers. This reader also sent me a link to jinitron‘s G+ post from November 2013, which states that Google’s censorship extends across its social media platform as well.
Reddit and YouTube aren’t the only big communities playing this game. A self-proclaimed NSA whistleblower named Virginia Hoge said in 2013 that her views have been suppressed on both Topix and Twitter, even though the CEO of Twitter claimed that “there is no such thing as shadow banning.” Dick Costolo’s naivete aside, I highly doubt he’d say such a thing today.
Expect the practice to spread across the internet. It’s a low-cost, low-conflict response to spam and trolls, and is now being implemented by Facebook to some degree in order to cut down on fake news reports. WordPress is getting requests to include shadowbanning options on comment plug-ins, so site admins clearly value it as a tool.
Here’s an idea: Instead of having to come up with ways to ban people later, why not use barriers to registration? When I get to a site and want to post a sarcastic comment, I’m usually deterred by the registration process, the classic first tier of user confirmation. I don’t want to provide my name, email address, and birthday to a site I never use just to respond to some idiot’s comment from six weeks ago.
Second and third tier confirmations can amplify this. For example, have users click on registration links that were emailed to them, since it excludes users providing fake email accounts. You can also use comment plug-ins that run off existing user accounts at Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. Those platforms will have verified the user’s sentience already, so it’s an effective pre-sorting method.
I admit that this would be unpopular with anonymous users. Signing in with social media profiles is also extremely dangerous, and it exposes backdoors to your personal information you didn’t even know existed. I quit posting on ESPN articles last year when they outsourced their message boards to Zuckerberg.
The ESPN mods let a lot of funny stuff in, but they were overworked on busy news days, like when the Big East considered a new name for itself in 2013. Ahh, those were the days.
Employing human-confirmation programs can also help, but bots have been known to beat the most sophisticated ones, and can fill out the various reCAPTCHA tests better than humans. The bots even beat Google‘s best attempts to limit access, and can you imagine the frustration of doing a reCAPTCHA every damn time you want to post something?
This all may sound more fascist than shadowbanning. After all, I hate registering for things, which is why sites like Reddit and 4chan are so popular with the anonymous crowd. Still, I’d rather have a hard time joining a club than be ignored by it shortly after joining, so just go to the lengths to prove I’m human before assuming I’m not.
If you have a shadowban story you’d like to share, email it to me and I’ll include it in a follow-up. Please include:
- Your banned handle/user name
- Platform (Reddit, YouTube, blog, etc)
- Reason (confirmed or suspected)
- Screenshots and/or quotes!
- Was your account ever unbanned?
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