Both the political right and left are coming after the large social media platforms due to their powerful influence over society. The right has complained about the censorship executed by the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for silencing conservative voices while the left has voiced concern about these perceived monopolies destroying competition. The left has mostly been dismissive about the idea that the corporations have a left-leaning disposition, and if they do, they are nonplussed. If corporations are allowed to contribute to election campaigns (see Citizens United v. FEC which the left abhorred), they should similarly be free to share or block content.
As to the question of whether shadow-banning is real, consider this blog of FirstOneThrough which has a right-of-center orientation to American and Israeli politics.
On a typical week, Facebook would account for over 10 times the number of referrals to an article as search engines. That pattern was relatively consistent whether there were few or several posts.
But the pattern broke during the election cycle.
|Weeks Ending||FB Average||Search Average||Ratio|
During the seven week cycle before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the blog remarkably went from getting roughly 13 times as many views from Facebook than search engines to only 3 times as much. The change was completely the result of a sharp decline in Facebook readership, as the volume produced from search engines remained constant.
That meant that fewer people had a chance to read the analysis of a vocal Libertarian and Zionist leading up to an important election. Once the election passed, Facebook permitted viewership patterns to return to normal (as of the following five weeks).
How and why did this happen?
Did a liberal reader flag the October 1 article “Vote Harvesting,” a completely true first-hand account of watching how a local election official can influence who gets to vote? Did Facebook decide on its own that posts from a writer who penned on September 25 “NY Times Tries Hard to Paint Obama/Biden as Pacifists and Trump as Mercenary” is an opinion to be silenced? Did an anti-Israel agitator do their utmost to flag a blogger who wrote on September 27 about the vile anti-Semitic Hamas Charter and how former Democratic U.S. President Jimmy Carter backed the Hamas terrorist group?
Whatever the origin of shadow ban, it clearly happened.
If Facebook wants to present itself as a biased platform like MSNBC or Fox News, that’s fine. A private platform can take whatever form it chooses. While it may be annoying when a media company like The New York Times pretends to be unbiased and not left-leaning, the tilt is well known and consistent. Only people living in a liberal bubble believe it to be a neutral and factual publication.
However, what kind of platform swings alt-left for just moments in time like during an election season? If the analysis presented by a blogger is offensive, then make it clear for that person to take their business and opinions elsewhere. Always.
What was done by social media in this instance was clear election-meddling, and on the grandest of scales due to the enormous power of social media. (\According to Pew research, 43% of Americans got their news from social media in 2018, a number that surely went up by 2020. That growing figure is despite a majority of people (57%) being skeptical of what they read.
In 2008, Barack Obama and his supporters were very effective in using social media, especially relative to John McCain supporters according to Pew Research. Obama voters surpassed McCain voters in posting content online (26% vs. 15%) and engaged politically on social media (25% vs. 16%) to yield a very successful outcome. But now, the social media companies themselves are keeping the gap in favor of Democrats by blocking the distribution of conservative posts.
Shadow banning in social media is very real and can easily tip presidential elections that are decided by less than one percent of voters in a couple of states. It is frightening and appalling that we no longer have to only fear the actions of foreign actors in the conduct of our democracy but the large social media platforms themselves.
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