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WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 — Today, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) released a research paper examining opaque content moderation practices on social media, colloquially known as “shadowbanning.”

The report, Shedding Light on Shadowbanning, finds that nearly one in 10 U.S. social media users believes they have been shadowbanned (i.e., had their content hidden or reduced in visibility, without being informed by the platform). Overall, surveys and interviews conducted by CDT show that this widespread perception has contributed to public distrust and conspiratorial attitudes towards social media companies’ content moderation methods.

“Shadowbanning is the unknown unknown of content moderation. Users have no way to know for sure whether they’re being shadowbanned or their content just isn’t performing. Social media companies don’t publicly acknowledge the practice, which also makes it hard for researchers to study it empirically. Our report removes some of the mystery around shadowbanning,” says CDT Research Fellow Gabriel Nicholas, who authored the report.

Original CDT research found that those who believe they have been shadowbanned are disproportionately male, Republican, Hispanic, or non-cisgender. People most commonly believed they had been shadowbanned for their political views (39%) or their positions on social issues (29%), and often felt persecuted by social media companies and gaslit by those companies’ public denials.

Social media companies adopt misleadingly narrow definitions of “shadowbanning” in their communications that are out of touch with how real people use the term, but the report found that many platforms do likely engage in the practice when it is more broadly defined. We also identified certain cases in which social media companies might not inform users that their content is being moderated, in order to stop bad actors from finding and exploiting structural weaknesses in platforms’ moderation efforts.

The report concludes with recommendations for social media companies, including:

  • Minimize shadowbanning. Social media companies should only shadowban when it is strictly necessary to protect the safety and integrity of the platform.
  • Disclose shadowbanning practices. Social media companies should publicize all the circumstances in which they will moderate a user’s content without informing them.
  • Empower researchers. Social media companies should, under certain conditions, provide outside researchers with the data they need to verify the shadowbanning practices they claim and to uncover other possible harmful effects shadowbanning may have.

At the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), we believe in putting democracy and individual rights at the center of the digital revolution. www.cdc.org