Censorship, shadow banning, deboosting and deplatforming are hot topics these days on the Internet, especially when it concerns the major social media platforms. I’ve blogged about this often in the last few months, and this time I want to detail one of my recent experiences on Reddit so that others can learn from it.
One of the problems with shadow banning and deplatforming is that it can often be done in a very sneaky way, without letting the user know; it’s a very evil way of censoring someone (and censorship in and of itself is already very evil):
Shadow banning (also called stealth banning, ghost banning or comment ghosting) is the act of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community such that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.
By partly concealing, or making a user’s contributions invisible or less prominent to other members of the service, the hope may be that in the absence of reactions to their comments, the problematic or otherwise out-of-favour user will become bored or frustrated and leave the site, and that spammers and trolls will not create new accounts.
In my recent experience with Reddit, after I had published the C++ posters which I blogged about a few days ago, I wanted to share them with the C++ community on Reddit (in the /r/cpp subreddit), which I had joined approximately a year ago (but had been following for much longer). So I made a post saying that I had published the posters on GitHub and provided a link for people to go check them out.
During the day I use multiple devices and I had posted on Reddit on a device which I’ll refer to as Device A from now on. The last time I had checked the post on Device A it got 15 upvotes and was 100% upvoted, while there were 2 comments from other users.
Not long after that I visited the /r/cpp subreddit again on another device, Device B, where I wasn’t logged in to Reddit, and couldn’t find my post on the homepage of the subreddit anymore. This was the first indication to me that my post had probably been moderated away, in this case shadow banned (or shadow deleted). On Device A, where I was logged in to Reddit, I could see my post just fine when using the direct URL for the post. When I manually typed the URL for the post in the browser on Device B where I was not logged in to Reddit, I could open the post but the contents appeared “[removed]”.
So when a post or comment is shadow banned on Reddit, it will appear to you just fine when you are logged in. But other users won’t see your post or comment, and neither will you when you are logged out. One way of checking whether or not your post or comment is actually visible to others is therefore to check from another device where you aren’t logged in (or logged in as a different user) and preferably also using a different Internet connection or VPN (in case they ban you based on IP address).
In my case, I found it very odd that my post was shadow banned because it was on topic and I couldn’t think of a reason for why someone would want to ban it. I created another post in /r/cpp asking the moderators why they removed my previous post about the C++ posters. I have a screenshot of that post below with all the comments and you can read the responses from the moderators.
Interestingly enough, this second post was also shadow banned, and much quicker than the first post, I believe within 10 minutes. While we had the discussion in the screenshot above, none of the other users in the subreddit could see the post and follow along. The rest of the community remained totally oblivious to this kind of censorship going on.
Notice that I complained to the moderators that I wasn’t notified that my first post was removed. I believe this was done on purpose to give me the impression that my post was still up and that all was well, because the moderator didn’t want to explain to me on what grounds they removed my post (for possible reasons that will become clear below). And of course, if I didn’t know that they removed my post, I wouldn’t ask questions either. Unfortunately for the moderator, I found out what they did.
It seemed fishy to me that the moderator behaved in this sneaky and evil manner, so after the initial reply from the moderator “STL” saying that they found my post “distasteful”, I asked for the reason why they found it “distasteful”. Now, it’s important to note here that the moderator going by the username “STL” is actually a man named Stephan T. Lavavej who is a software engineer working at Microsoft on the C++ Standard Library implementation. And the reason why this is important will become clear below.
Lavavej replied that he found my first post distasteful because “it made fun of disabled people”. You can take a look at the actual text on the poster yourself and see if you agree. To me it’s very clear that the text is making fun of the C++ language, and specifically focused on some of the risky parts that programmers have to deal with all the time when programming in C++. That someone would connect that text with “making fun of disabled people” doesn’t make any sense, until you know that Lavavej is probably missing one eye as you can see in the screenshot below from his public profile on the CppCon website.
Judging from his past appearances at CppCon the missing eye seems to be permanent, which would put him in the category of a person with a disability. When I thought about this, Lavavej’s comment made more sense — it was his own personal circumstance and bias that made him misunderstand the humor and purpose of the poster and made him take it personally. I don’t know Lavavej’s personal story with regard to what appears to be a missing eye, but I can imagine that perhaps people used to make fun of it and now he’s extra sensitive when it comes to humor where “disabled people” are involved. Given the type of humor used on the poster, which is over-the-top, unrealistic, absurd, and uses a fictional person and fictional and highly absurd data, it’s kind of mind-boggling that someone would take this so personally.
After Lavavej’s last response mentioning “ad hominem”, which you can see in the screenshot above, the thread was locked and I couldn’t reply to it anymore. I assume it was Lavavej himself who locked the thread after his last comment to prevent me from replying.
Now why is all of this important?
First of all, this is a classic example of what can go wrong when people are entrusted with too much power and then can’t handle that in an objective and responsible way. And I would argue that it is quite impossible for anyone to consistently do so. We recently saw the same kind of problem in the case of Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince, and this is a problem on all major social media platforms today such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Medium. “Hacker” News has the same types of moderation and shadow banning mechanisms like Reddit. Put too much power in the hands of one man, or a small group of people, or a single centralized platform, and sooner or later they’ll start abusing it. This abuse of power can be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. Instead of being objective, all kinds of personal- or ingroup biases can come into play, influencing people to make the wrong decision. One would have to be a saint to be entrusted with this kind of power, where they can censor and gag other people at will while simultaneously having the ability to keep it hidden and be sneaky about it (and thus more easily get away with it). In fact, a true saint would refuse to have such kind of power.
Those who want power do not deserve it. And those who deserve power do not want it. J.K. Rowling
Secondly, this serves as a nice case study for everyone else on the Internet who might have to deal with similar problems, not only on Reddit but on all other social media platforms. Even if you’ve never had to deal with this problem (as far as you know), this should remind you to be extra vigilant and skeptical, and to often check for clues to see whether or not you’re being censored or shadow banned.
Third, and most importantly, this experience shows us again why we need to move to truly peer-to-peer (P2P) communications platforms as soon as possible. On a truly P2P platform, there is no centralized control and censorship becomes quite impossible. For example, on a P2P version of Reddit, perhaps implemented on a blockchain (like Bitcoin is), there would be no moderators and everyone would be allowed to post. Once something is posted on the blockchain by someone, it stays there forever and would be impossible to hide or remove without invalidating all other communications that occurred after that. There would be no up- or down voting because it would be pointless. Moderation would still be possible, but everyone would have to do it for themselves; if someone doesn’t like content posted by someone else, they can choose to make that content invisible only to themselves while it stays up for everyone else to see. This would easily solve a lot of cases on, for example, Facebook: Are you too sexually repressed and don’t like seeing female nipples? Block them for yourself, but everyone else still gets to enjoy them. No need to delete content or block anyone for 30 days.
Like I mentioned before:
If someone finds someone else annoying because they hold a different opinion, then even if they are so weak and stupid to block that person, it should only be for/on their own profile, and not network wide — otherwise you violate the other person’s right to free speech. You have the right not to listen, but you don’t have the right to block someone else from expressing themselves.
In the above example on Reddit, Lavavej would have been within his right to block himself from seeing my posts and comments if they offend him, but by censoring and gagging me, he violated not only my right to free speech, but also the /r/cpp community’s right to view my content and decide for themselves. And as one of the commenters remarked, the “community as a whole” didn’t have a problem with my post, at least not in the period that it was allowed to stay visible by Lavavej. It was also 100% upvoted the last time I had checked before it was removed.
In a similar way but on a grander scale, Big Tech has taken it upon themselves to decide for everyone else what is deemed acceptable speech and what is deemed “hate” speech on the Internet, censoring any information that’s not in line with their own agendas. In most cases people don’t even realize that they’re being presented by Big Tech with a manipulated and biased version of reality. Project Veritas has more on that in the video below.
In closing, I’m afraid to say that these days when you post online on whatever platform, you should probably make sure your post is actually visible to other people for an extended period of time. Unfortunately you can’t make assumptions about that anymore.