What Is Shadow Banning & Why Are TikTokers Complaining About It?

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
If you spend enough time on any of TikTok’s subkingdoms (except for Straight TikTok) you’ll likely come across a user’s desperate plea to have a post boosted to remedy the devastating effects of a recent shadow ban. Users as big as fake cult-leader Melissa Ong (@chunkysdead) have pleaded their case to their followers, at least the ones that find their videos.
There are almost 300 million videos hashtagged #shadowbanned on TikTok. Most recently, shadow banning made headlines when Black TikTokers organized Blackout Tuesday on May 19, to protest what they claimed was TikTok’s suppression of pro-Black political content. As Refinery29 previously reported, TikTok has denied claims of shadow banning, but still apologized to Black creators for the hashtag glitch, and has since taken measures to make Black creators feel more supported and able to work with the platform to enact change. 
The shadow banning claims, both collected by Refinery29 and shared on TikTok, tend to describe similar patterns. Users’ views, likes, and comments aren’t reflective of the size of their following. Or people will suddenly experience a steep drop in engagement that will persist until the video that triggered it is removed or edited. Sometimes videos get taken down without any explanation. It’s also known as ghosting or stealth-banning.
Dill (@dillyonce) is a 25-year-old TikToker based out of Boston. She says she’s never sworn in her videos or been cited for any violations, yet her videos get taken down regularly. “For example, I was in Bali on vacation at this beautiful villa and I was recording a TikTok pretending to be the first Black LGBT+ contestant for the Bachelorette in Paradise,” she told Refinery29 over email. “The video lacked profanity, vulgarity, and music plagiarism yet upon multiple uploads they were all removed for reasons I still don't understand; it's been very frustrating to be the victim of shadowbanning.” 
The simplest definition for “shadow ban” is the removal or suppression of content without the platform notifying the user that their content is in violation of any community guidelines or usage rules. In other words, it’s when a platform takes down or suppresses your content without giving you formal notice. Platform users tend to regularly suspect shadow banning, but it is rarely proven.
In mid-March, an investigation by The Intercept unearthed an internal document that confirmed TikTok once, “instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” This is certainly the most damning example of TikTok’s shadow banning practices. But the platform told The Intercept that many of the guidelines outlined in the article are, “are either no longer in use, or in some cases appear to never have been in place,” and that they were a misguided effort to prevent bullying. Since then, TikTok has been sharing insights into how content is circulated, like this blog post on how the For You page works
However, it would be unfair to pin a decades-old pattern that is common in platform moderation on the app du jour, which just so happens to be based out of the country Trump has labeled public enemy number one. Every major platform, including Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and Craigslist have all been accused of shadow banning. Most recently, YouTuber Gaby Hana made headlines with her claims of being shadow banned on YouTube. It’s a practice almost as old as the internet itself, originally intended to drive undesirable users, like spammers, off a given platform. It’s also known as ghosting or stealth-banning. In theory, shadow banning’s only productive application is when it comes to dealing with spam, to convince spammers to abandon a platform and leave its users alone.
In 2018, Republicans and conservatives cried “shadow ban” arguing social media platforms were out to get them, using a Vice News story that said that Twitter limited the visibility of Republicans. (Shortly after, Twitter released a statement explaining that a bug had affected not just Republicans, but many users for a short period of time before it was fixed.) But that didn’t keep Donald Trump from hopping on the bandwagon.

The fires of suspicion were stoked once again after a Twitter hack that affected the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates. In reporting the hack, Motherboard shared screenshots that showed how the hack was executed. The screenshot showed how, internally, Twitter tags certain accounts as "Trend Blacklist" or "Search Blacklist" to mark accounts that have violated community guidelines and have been restricted from appearing in trending pages and searches, respectively. Like in 2018, Trump supporters took this as proof that Twitter is shadow banning them, but as Motherboard puts it: "VICE's traffic tools show tweets by conservatives linking to our article, saying the screenshots we published reveal a shadowban conspiracy, are leading thousands of viewers to our site."
Today, conversations around shadow banning seem to be gaining momentum in a time where Black people, especially, have real concerns regarding over-policing. Overall, platforms need to do better in applying their community guidelines evenly and ensuring they do not echo our faulty government’s habit of criminalizing Blackness, so often the very engine that fuels the content is what keeps these spaces alive.
Refinery29 reached out to TikTok for comment regarding ongoing shadow banning claims and will update this story when we receive a response.

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