The future of information suppression may be much harder to detect—and thus enormously more difficult to counteract. The digital censors of tomorrow will not require intimidation or force; instead, they can exploit the dark art of "shadow-censorship."
Shadow-censorship is a way to control information by secretly limiting or obscuring the ways that people can access it. Rather than outright banning or removing problematic communications, shadow-censors can instead wall off social-media posts or users in inaccessible obscurity without the target’s knowledge. To an individual user, it just looks like no one is interested in his or her content. But behind the scenes, sharing algorithms are being covertly manipulated so that it's extremely difficult for other users to view the blacklisted information.
In theory, there are a variety of ways that shadow-censorship could be applied on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Users may be automatically unsubscribed from blacklisted feeds without notice. Social media analytics can be selectively edited after the fact to make some posts look more or less popular than they really were. Individual posts or users can be flagged so that they are shown in as few feeds as possible by default. Or provocative content that originally escaped selective filtering may be memory-holed after the fact, retrievable only by the eagle-eyed few who notice and care to draw attention to such curious antics.
In each situation, the result is to manipulate network dynamics so that individuals end up censoring themselves. No-knock raids and massive anti-sedition campaigns are unnecessary. To control sensitive information today, you can just make people believe that no one else cares. Eventually, they give up, cease their broadcasts, and move on to something else.
The concept of shadow-censorship tends to quickly invite skepticism. The scheme sounds more like a derivative plot to a lesser Phillip K. Dick story than a true threat facing today’s keyboard kulturkampfers. After all, what seems more likely: a conspiracy to silence posts that speak truth to power or that our Internet friends simply find us boring? Sure, major technology companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter could engage in this malicious filtering. But why would they? They have reputations to uphold and users to keep happy. Should enough come to distrust these platforms, they will exit for fairer alternatives and doom these networks' futures.
But as the Edward Snowden revelations have made clear, technology companies are prime targets for government capture or coercion. Internet firms have taken major hits to reputation and future profitability for their collaboration with U.S. surveillance programs, whether they were willing henchmen for authorities or quiet resistors dragging their feet. The mere capacity to control data-access for major Internet traffic centers could prove irresistible for powerful forces seeking to massage perceived reality. We therefore cannot rule out the possibility that such shadow-censorship measures may be employed simply because they don't seem to be in a network's best interest.
What's more, we know that social-media platforms are able to shadow-censor because some of them already wield these techniques to neuter speech that’s considered spam or abuse. Take Reddit. The content aggregator’s Help page states that users who suddenly flood the website with a new submission may be "shadow banned," meaning that the user can continue to submit posts and links but they will not be visible to any other user. Reddit co-founder and current CEO Steve Huffman explained that he created the shadow-banning capability 10 years ago to abate the constant spambot attacks that plagued the website’s early days. In an "Ask Me Anything" session with the community last summer, Huffman assured redditors that "real users should never be shadowbanned. Ever. If we ban them, or specific content, it will be obvious that it's happened and there will be a mechanism for appealing the decision."
But this tool could easily be abused by petty administrators seeking to stifle opposing opinions or entice advertiser dollars with a more wartless brand. This appeared to be the case during the "Reddit Revolt" earlier this year, a tumultuous internecine battle between Reddit users and certain administrators over heavy-handed censorship and shadow-banning. Some Reddit users claimed they had been shadow-banned merely for criticizing controversial former CEO Ellen Pao and Reddit’s lack of transparent moderation. After Pao stepped down from her post, many users hoped that the new management would repair damaged community trust and retake the website’s mantle as a "bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web," as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanion described the platform in 2012. However, perceived shadow-censorship continues to be a hotly debated topic on Reddit, with some leaving the platform altogether in favor of the (currently) more open Voat community.
Rightly or wrongly, some people downplay or even welcome underhanded censorship of controversial Internet movements like the #RedditRevolt or the more widely-reviled #Gamergate. If you consider these groups’ speech and behaviors to be abuse on the level of physical violence, you will see no problem in shadow-banning their accounts or shadow-censoring their speech. But most of us would be deeply concerned to learn that the shadow-censorship tactics started to prevent spamming and harassment are being used instead to suppress evidence of government oppression or violence. And a recent incident on Twitter highlights just how salient this risk has become.
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