There is a persistent conspiracy theory in the world of internet celebrities that claims social media platforms like to slash viewership numbers to punish creators. So-called shadowbans are believed to stealthily reduce popularity. No matter how many times tech companies say they’re not real, the idea persists.
Fears of shadowbans show up on all platforms. In 2020, YouTube was accused of banning PewDiePie, one of its most popular creators, after users complained they weren’t seeing his channel in search results.
In 2018, Donald Trump claimed Twitter was banning conservative voices. He later used these claims to generate interest in his own Twitter-like social media company, Truth Social. On the new platform, he wrote, “there will be no shadow banning, throttling, demonetization, or manipulation of political manipulation algorithms.”
Like Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, social media influencers are at the mercy of algorithms. This makes it perfect fodder for conspiracy theories. It also makes sense that influencers would be confused by any sudden decrease in engagement and scared of changes that could jeopardize the brand deals they sign.
Instead of believing that their own popularity is on the decline, some cling to the idea that shadowbans are a disciplinary measure used against creators who don’t warrant an outright ban from a platform. The theory goes that because they haven’t violated the terms of service, the company can’t kick them out. Instead, he opts for a cowardly form of retribution by reducing the audience for his content. Companies like Instagram are accused of deliberately changing their algorithms to reduce engagement.
Look online and you’ll find plenty of people saying they can help accounts recover from a shadowban. This, of course, is only possible if there are shadowbans. Social media companies insist they are a myth. In 2018, Instagram manager Adam Mosseri said they were “not a real thing”. Last year, the company tried again by writing a lengthy blog post about how the algorithms work, hoping to dispel the rumor.
If a user has interacted with videos from another account in the past, for example, they are more likely to see new ones from the same source, he writes. But that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to see every message. TikTok also posted a detailed explanation of its video recommendations to dispel the idea of bias. No company wants to risk losing popular content creators to rivals just because viewership drops.
The reality is that social media algorithms try to entertain users. TikTok is known for its random selection of posts. The company deliberately tries not to show too much of the same designer in a short period of time. He wants to provide users with the kind of content they will like without it becoming too uniform.
But it is also true that companies can intervene. There are tweaks designed to protect users from spam; others to remove harmful images. Some rules are difficult to justify. A text-to-speech service launched by TikTok last year in collaboration with Disney couldn’t pronounce the word “gay”, for example. Some black creators say their content isn’t promoted as widely as their white peers.
Trying to understand a system where the rules are opaque is difficult. There are several theories about the best time of day to post a video on TikTok or the optimal number of hashtags to add to an Instagram photo. But none are infallible. Promoted content is designed to appeal to rapidly changing tastes. Even if a creator finds a topic that resonates with viewers, they risk losing engagement if they keep posting the same kind of thing too often.
The added frustration for creators is finding someone to complain to. Like most big tech companies, social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok don’t employ a lot of people relative to their user numbers. Instagram is owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, which had 71,970 full-time employees at the end of last year and 3.59 billion people using at least one of its products every month. This represents approximately one employee for every 50,000 users.
Unfortunately for creators who make social media their business, the most likely explanation for a drop in views is that not everything they upload strikes a chord with viewers. The public is bored and snaps.
If you make a living out of attracting attention, and how you get that attention depends on third-party platforms, the risks are hard to quantify. No amount of algorithm blogging can change this reality.