October 27, 2015

Shadow-Censorship on Social Media Sparks New Concerns for Open-Internet Advocates

Summary

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.

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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.

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