This article appears in VICE Magazine's Algorithms issue, which investigates the rules that govern our society, and what happens when they're broken.
In our current, feverish reality, it can be hard to remember that previous lifetimes were just as surreal. Two years ago, in a Congressional hallway, conspiracy titan Alex Jones really did pursue and then confront Congressman Marco Rubio, calling him a “snake,” a “frat boy,” and a “little gangster thug.”
The cause of the altercation was both typical Jones—a stunt for attention, in front of a pliant bank of TV cameras—and something much larger. Jones was infuriated by his supposed “shadowbanning” from Big Tech platforms, and he’d come to Capitol Hill to demand answers.
“The real election meddling is by Facebook and Google and others that are shadow banning people,” Jones bellowed in the direction of those cameras. “They are outright banning people and they are blocking conservatives involved in their own First Amendment political speech.”
Jones’ pursuit of Rubio was one of several colorful incidents spanning 2018, when conservatives and the far-right alike were gripped by the fear that they were being silenced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Ultimately, those conservative users included the president himself, who tweeted, “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.”
In the past two years, shadowbanning has become a central part of the cosmology of the right wing. At a round of anti-trust hearings in July, Rep. Jim Jordan declared, “I’ll just cut to the chase. Big tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch, that’s a fact.”
But despite Jordan’s performative outrage, while it was once the conservative and far right cause du jour, shadowbanning has, more or less, come to be accepted as an immovable part of the technological landscape. And instead of merely loudly complaining, many people are, cannily, turning to something a lot more profitable. A host of alternative social media platforms that have sprung up in recent years, each promising to be the most free. Shadowbanning and supposed “silencing” at the hands of Big Tech have gone from a controversy to an integral part of the business model.
Trump’s 2018 tweet appeared to have been responding to a VICE News story, which reported that Twitter wasn’t showing several Republican congressmen, Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel, and Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesperson in their dropdown search bar, making them less easy to immediately find and slightly limiting their reach. The intent, Twitter told VICE News at the time, wasn’t to specifically silence conservative voices, but, as a May blog post from the company put it, “combat troll-like behaviors” and make users more visible who contribute to “the healthy conversation.” (After VICE News’s report, the ability to find those prominent Republican users in a drop-down search was quickly restored.)
What constitutes “healthy conversation” is doubtless a judgment call; what’s more, Twitter’s decision fed into a paranoia already stoked by a purported “report” from Project Veritas, the conservative sting organization best known for misleadingly edited videos, which claimed that the company’s engineers conspired to silence viewpoints they didn’t agree with. “'Shadow banning' to be used to stealthily target political views,” the organization trumpeted.
Conservatives in high places took up the call: at the Congressional hearings that fall, which were broadly about how platforms like Facebook and Twitter combat disinformation and foreign influence campaigns, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden took time to demand that Dorsey address shadowbanning.
Shadowbanning caught on in part because it fed into a long history of conservative suspicion, the idea that mainstream methods of communication were biased, stacked against them, unforgivably liberal. The place where that’s historically been most visible is in newspapers and news broadcasts. Fox News, of course, was founded on the idea that “fair and balanced” news was in criminally short supply. But as the Atlantic wrote in 2014, Fox News is one of a long series of conservative alternatives to mainstream news, starting with conservative newspapers like Human Events.
In 2018, the low grumble of silencing and unfairness coalesced into something far more visible, and shadowbanning became permanently enshrined as part of the conservative and far-right landscape of grievance. (It was even, at times, conflated with users who were indeed silenced on those platforms, not in secret, but outright: Milo Yiannpoulos, Alex Jones, Laura Loomer and others were loudly kicked off various platforms in 2019.)
In actuality, the only group of people who could persuasively make the case that they were being truly shadowbanned on the basis of their identity were (and are) sex workers, who say they’ve faced permanent suspensions and what they suspect is shadowbanning on Twitter, as well as their accounts being repeatedly deleted on Instagram for sharing things as anodyne as photos of their freshly painted toenails.
In 2018, most of the people who complained of being shadowbanned still had plenty of places to complain about it—their own websites, radio shows, and, in the case of Alex Jones and InfoWars, a network of secondary Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, semi-official ones whose sole purpose is to link to InfoWars stories and which remain active to this day—the idea that conservatives needed an alternative platform quickly took hold. The earliest one that ultimately took off was Gab, which launched in beta in 2016, and whose CEO Andrew Torba was kicked out of the startup accelerator Y Combinator the same year for violating its harassment policy.
Torba describes himself as a “conservative Republican Christian” who felt forced to hide his views because he worried it would be, as TechCrunch wrote at the time, “a hindrance to my career — which proved to be true.” In his telling, when he became open about his views, he was called a “racist” and a “bigot,” and ultimately kicked out of Y Combinator (which did not help fund Gab). Y Combinator, meanwhile, said that he’d been removed for speaking in a “threatening, harassing way” to other Y Combinator alumni, for instance writing in a Facebook comment, “All of you: fuck off. Take your morally superior, elitist, virtue signaling bullshit and shove it. I call it like I see it, and I helped meme a President into office, cucks.” The controversy almost certainly helped drive Gab into the spotlight: Google Trends shows that while Gab launched in August of 2016, its mentions in news skyrocketed in November, when news of Torba’s ousting began circulating. (Discussions of the far right’s burgeoning influence, of course, also became a big topic around November of 2016 due to the presidential election, which probably also helped.)
Gab has claimed throughout its life that the network seeks to allow for truly free speech. Regardless of those lofty goals, it’s primarily become popular with Nazis and the far right, most ignominiously becoming the place where a man posted a violent manifesto before killing 11 people at a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
It soon had competition and company. The founder of CloutHub, a little known social network that launched in 2019, told a site called Just the News that he’d personally been shadowbanned on Twitter, adding, "So I have first-hand experience with big-tech censorship. I felt it was un-American and that the people needed to have a platform where they can discuss issues without big-tech silencing our voices." Brighteon, a YouTube alternative, promises “Watch documentaries the techno-fascists don't want you to know even exist.” And now there’s Parler, which in a floridly written “Declaration of Independence,” claimed, “They manipulate their platform to hide information. They shadow ban, trick and deceive. They have become enablers, and often leaders, of the vicious cancel-culture mob who goose-step through our online communities and scream down those who dare to disagree.” Unlike Gab, however, Parler doesn’t make any pretense of being ideologically neutral, trumpeting its success at courting Republican lawmakers and other Trump allies.
In a way, though, none of these sites are really successful without Twitter or Facebook, sites that are constantly referenced and used to promote users’ moves to these other platforms, none of which seem to be able to exactly survive without the supposedly unfair ecosystem that surrounds them. (News organizations are also wholly reliant on these platforms to get anyone to see stories, and suffer similarly from opaque changes to the algorithm; the people who are shadowbanned, however, seem to see themselves as inherently special.)
The effect is that many prominent conservatives are touting their moves to Parler while continuing to tweet, like full-time Twitter user and former Congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine, who recently wrote, “Welp Since Twitter Thought Police have began aggressively shadowbanning me lately, I’m heading over to Parler! I’m going to start posting regularly there as I need a backup platform. Follow me there! Also does anyone know of an app that auto syncs your Tweets to Parler posts?” Rep. Jim Jordan, who railed recently that Big Tech was “out to get conservatives,” invited his Twitter followers in June to join him on Parler, tweeting, “They don’t censor or shadow ban.” He continues to tweet many times a day.
To date, Parler and Gab are still battling for the ultimate prize: President Trump, who continues to use Twitter, even as he darkly rants about its unfairness. And by late June, Parler—in what will seem deeply ironic to some and like poetic justice to others—had reportedly begun banning liberal users, proving, perhaps, that the point was never about truly free and unfettered speech at all.
Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.