Have I been shadowbanned?

Friends, you’ll already be fully aware of the pickle I found myself in a few days ago. No, I’m not talking about being relentlessly harassed by an army of skeletons or having third-wave feminists frothing from the mouth over a tweet that was purposefully taken out of context. H*ck, I’m not even talking about the gaming community that has always been a thorn in my side. I’m talking about something more intelligent, nefarious, expertly engineered and harder to prove than a minority celebrity's guilt: the shadowban.

From hundreds of thousands of impressions per hour to single-digits? Give me a break.

There’s no hard proof of the shadowban, but anecdotally it appears to be when users, more often than not Trump supporters and others who refuse to tote the line the liberal media is force-feeding us, experience a sudden and unexplained drop in social network reach. It comes without a warning and hits you where it hurts most: the ego. Whereas a couple of days ago you had hundreds and thousands of interaction notifications per minute, now your outraged rant to the New York Times at 3AM isn’t even garnering one measly impression, much less a heart or a coveted RT. You self-reflect and wonder: Did I accidentally set my profile to protected? Did I really hit the send button? Or am I just being an unlikable idiot?

But you know in your heart of hearts that the last one isn’t the case. You’re one of America’s top journalists, d*ngit! You’re the only journalist ever to snag an interview with @dasharez0ne. You’re the guy who single-handedly uncovered the depth of the plight of gold-farming Chinese minors. You’re bigger than Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour and Robert Fisk. In fact, you’re better than all of them put together. And there’s no way you’re the one being the unlikable idiot.

People don’t say much about shadowbans, but this they will say: They don’t happen. It’s all just an illusion of Trump supporters’, investigative journalists’ and other non-conforming, freethinkers’ collective imaginations. Even the very concept must just be the deranged ramblings of the paranoid, megalomaniacal and insecure who can’t accurately assess their own realm of influence. And, after all, as a liberal shouldn’t you agree that a private enterprise can and should conduct itself however it deems best for the bottom line?

After I finally managed to stop laughing cynically into my mobile phone I immediately correctly identified that all of these statements are painfully simpleminded. A countless stream of reports of shadowbans can easily be found and it’s growing every hour. And not once has this list gotten shorter. And even if you don’t want to believe millions of people, many with impressive credentials and even more impressive followings, how do you feel about the very creator of the hit anti-capitalist comic Dilbert’s write-up on the situation? Look, I’m the last person who wants to tell private companies what to do. That’s why I have always opposed OSHA and have always supported the repeal of ObamaCare. But when you are talking about one of the most popular mediums for voicing unfiltered opinions on anything from contemporary political discourse to racially insensitive memes of Leslie Jones then that is going too far. These things are national treasures that must be cherished and protected, not erased from the history books like Korean comfort women. Freedom of speech doesn’t stop when it starts making you uncomfortable. That’s where it begins. And if you don’t like it the move to Europe, snowflake.

Pondering the topic I keep coming back to a German word I once heard. No, it isn’t Reinheitsgebot because that word is stupid as h*ck. Categorically forbidding Tangerine Wheat because you are uncomfortable in your own sexuality? Get outta here. The word I am talking about is Zersetzung and I only learned of it because my ninth grade Civics teacher was a defector from East Germany back during the Cold War. And since last time I checked, our grandfathers had fought so we wouldn’t have to learn German words here in America, I’ll assume none of you know this one and will give you a short definition:

Zersetzung is a psychological warfare technique first used by Nazi Germany against political opponents. The East German secret police used it to silence political opponents by repression. -Wikipedia

Basically Zersetzung was one big long con perpetrated by the German secret service(s). It consisted of many methods of manipulation in addition to collecting intel on an individual, when that wasn’t enough to warrant a (legal) arrest. The East German Secret Police — the Stasi — would identify agitators, tweak their lives a little and sadistically observe as the subjects fell apart. The Stasi, one of the biggest secret services ever, would often start out with seemingly innocuous activities. Just messing around a little. Maybe breaking into agitators’ homes and rearranging the furniture or moving small items. Later they would step it up by exploiting non-conforming personality traits to invoke negative feelings (outing homosexuals, shaming mothers, etc.). They would also make use of their massive network of spooks to negatively influence the subjects’ lives on an individual basis. In East Germany an estimated 1 in 6.5 people were at least occasional informants to the Stasi. With these resources, ensuring both professional and personal failure were as easy as taking candy from a baby. Imagine if 16% of the people you know were mindless sycophants who would do anything the government asked them to without so much as a critical thought. Imagine how they could actually start to police your mind from within. The literal translation of Zersetzung is “dissolution”. The dissolution of ego, self, motivation, sanity. There are more than a few cases where Zersetzung ended in suicide. It’s really that simple.

Now we know for a fact that other networks have been caught testing the effects of psychological manipulation on users. Is it then far fetched to believe that others are doing the same thing? Are they starting out small at first? How many times have you painstakingly re-read your social media posts only to notice an hour later that you used “affect” when you meant “effect”? Or are they going bigger already and limiting reach for no apparent reason? Is purposefully showing posts to those who are most willing to be confrontational not just another way of bullying critics? Big data has come a long way, and real-time analysis of text for general content isn’t rocket science. Privately owned social networks are arguably bigger than any secret service ever and they know all of our secrets, all of our fears and all of our insecurities. Who needs a secret service to break your spirit when social networks can do it faster, cheaper and more on spec? Stop shadowbanning, or at the very least be transparent about it.