Home Tech Shadowbans: Secret Policies Depriving Sex Workers of Income and Community

Shadowbans: Secret Policies Depriving Sex Workers of Income and Community

You can't have a revolution with invisible people.

Written collaboratively by Juniper Fitzgerald and Jessie Sage

Several months ago, we attended the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, which included the Adult Video Network (AVN awards). The problematic aspects of such conventions notwithstanding—for example, a panel of “industry leaders” at the Expo admitted to never hearing of FOSTA—it is an event many sex workers count on for networking. This year, one thing stood out at the various parties and meetups: none of the people in attendance, from well-known porn stars to newly minted cam girls, could find each other on social media platforms. So we—your very much alive and visible authors—decided to search for one another. Sure enough, even typing our exact handles into Twitter’s search bar yielded “no results.”

Since AEE/AVN, other sex workers have publicly addressed shadowbanning. The day after International Whores’ Day on June 2, NYC-based Dominatrix Mistress Blunt tweeted, “It’s really upsetting that when I go to tweet about #IWD everyone is #shadowbanned and I can’t find them to tag and I can’t livestream important speeches because I’ve been banned from that feature too.” Sex workers are finding that Twitter and other platforms have shadowbanned a significant portion of our community. Shadowbanning is the increasingly common practice of social media platforms silently censoring a user’s content without either the user or her potential followers knowing. In the The Economist, the anonymous writer G.F. describes Twitter shadowbanning:

Shadowbanned users are not told that they have been affected. They can continue to post messages, add new followers and comment on or reply to other posts. But their messages may not appear in the feed, their replies may be suppressed and they may not show up in searches for their usernames. The only hint that such a thing is happening would be a dip in likes, favourites or retweets—or an ally alerting them to their disappearance.

In the year since The Economist column was published, shadowban testers have been created. Shadowban testers are able to determine whether a Twitter user is banned in search suggestions, general searches, and/or in their thread. Essentially, the test detects whether a user’s Twitter handle is suggested to others, whether their handle pops up in a general search, and/or if the user’s entire thread is invisible to other users.

In the column, G.F. further maintains that “the currency of social networks is attention.” While there may be some truth in this statement, for sex workers, the currency of social networks is also, well, currency. Accessing community and clients translates to income for people like us who are marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized. So, when sex workers lose access to social media, we lose access to income. Shadowbanning, then, is an opaque practice that effectively denies sex workers their livelihood. Sex worker Leana Lane tells us over Twitter DM, “I suspect that fewer clients are seeing and booking me than they would otherwise [because of it].”

Realizing how pervasive shadowbanning had become, we began to ask questions: What exactly is shadowbanning? How do sex workers on Twitter know that they’ve been shadowbanned? What have sex workers tried to do to get around shadowbanning? And, perhaps most importantly, how has it impacted their businesses and their community?

While we as sex workers keenly feel the impacts of shadowbanning, Twitter is not forthright about its use of the practice, even going so far as to deny that they do it. “It is a completely opaque process,” sex worker and online political organizer Liara Roux tells us over the phone. “We are given no information about [shadowbanning].”

Its opacity is what has lead some to also refer to it as “stealth banning” or “ghosting.” Lynn, a phone sex operator and phone sex coach, explains to us over email, “The purpose is to throttle members from being seen by (and therefore potentially upsetting) other members—without the throttled member knowing about it (and thus risking their ire and retaliation).” Shadowbanning, in other words, “makes an account, and therefore the person, less seen/heard.”

For sex workers who use social media to promote our businesses and brands, there are telltale signs of a shadowban. Many of the sex workers we spoke to saw a drastic decline in engagement (follows, likes, retweets, etc.) after posting what Twitter deems “sensitive content,” a vague term in and of itself. Essentially, sex workers can expect to be shadowbanned if their page contains nudity or otherwise sexually suggestive content.

Bardot Smith, a dominatrix, tells us over the phone, “I have multiple tweets a day that will garner hundreds of likes and then I will post a picture that will get two. That isn’t how the internet works, typically pictures get way more engagement than straight text.”

It is not only explicit media that triggers the banning algorithms. Many sex workers we spoke to report that auto-generated promotional tweets from the platforms they work on can also trigger a shadowban.

Cam model Lola outlines her experience for us over Twitter DMs, “I believe it started when I made a ManyVids [account] and activated auto tweets, I wasn’t shadowbanned before that. I used to make sales regularly through Twitter and my followers were steadily rising until this happened. I get way less interaction in general on here, as far as likes, retweets, DMs and new followers.”

Writer and sex worker Suprihmbe tells us in a phone interview that her social media presence increased when she transitioned her Twitter page from explicitly sexual content to sex work politics: “I was shadowbanned when my account was more focused on my sex work, rather than sex work politics.” In other words, “sensitive content” is more likely to include the naked human body than political organizing.

Of course, sex worker political organizing typically expresses the progressive position that all people are deserving of human and labor rights. On the other side of the political spectrum, alt-right political pundits increasingly spew literally genocidal Nazi propaganda with no reaction from Twitter. Apparently, the dudebros of Silicon Valley perceive a naked breast as more “sensitive” than hailing Hitler.

Chatting with sex workers about lifting their shadowbans further illuminated the process of shadowbanning and the ways the nebulous “sensitive content” category is operationalized. For many, trying to lift a shadowban is incredibly frustrating.

London-based dominatrix Goddess Cleo recounts to us over Twitter DM, “I’ve tried everything: locking my account, detaching my phone number, changing email, re-attaching my phone number, marking my content as sensitive. I’ve tried engaging more (which is super time consuming). I stopped using Hootsuite for my automated marketing tweets.” Cleo’s experience demonstrates that there might be more at work in the shadowban process than algorithms programmed to detect nude bodies.

For example, when Roux “stopped tweeting nudes,” their Twitter shadowban was effectively lifted. However, they note that they “still have a search suggestion ban.” It seems once a person is shadowbanned for sensitive content, they remain on the sensitive-content-radar.

Performer, actor, and writer Jiz Lee has also employed several strategies to keep their main Twitter account from being banned. They told us over email, “I stopped posting explicit content. I still post links to adult sites and follow fellow adult creators, however I have refrained from posting explicit images and videos directly on my account.”

They go on, “Because I would still like to promote my content on Twitter, I created a separate account where I can post NSFW media and promotional links. I can then retweet them from my main account or periodically refer followers to the NSFW account.”

They recognize, however, that this may not be a foolproof plan: “I am still worried that algorithms will ‘tie’ the two accounts, however, and am actively researching other ways to proactively keep myself from being banned.”

Other sex workers also offered strategies for curtailing a shadowban. Charlotte Long suggests developing content “that puts links to porn without showing the sensitive content” in order to avoid being shadowbanned. She also says that she “grew [her] network by engaging.” For her, this engagement was very deliberate. “I made a list of 30 people to strategically interact with, commented on at least 15 different accounts and retweet at least five every day,” she explains. [Eds. note: After reviewing the recording of the interview with Charlotte Long, we realized the writers erroneously condensed what she said as well as misrepresented her ideas about shadowbanning. For example, Long does not always think that sex workers are specifically targeted by Twitter, and recognizes that the labeling of some sex worker accounts as ‘sensitive’ as the platform indirectly protecting their confidentiality. We sincerely appreciate Long bringing this error to our attention.]

All of these strategies taken together may help to mitigate some of these discriminatory practices, but they are certainly not a guarantee of success. As Lynn points out, “You can try to stay under the radar and not attract the attention of would-be morality police. But, fundamentally, you are at the mercy of unknown policies and algorithm math.”

The most obvious effect that shadowbanning has on sex workers is to limit their reach. Smith comments, “Shadowbanning is depressingly reducing my visibility.” This is true for sex workers across the world. Cookie the MILF, a New Zealand-based escort, told us on Twitter that she has the same problems: “Shadowbanning effectively cuts me off from clients, they are not able to search generically for a sex worker in my area [despite the fact that it is decriminalized].”

Reduced visibility is obviously a marketing problem for sex workers.“[Shadowbanning makes it] harder to market yourself,” Suprihmbe says, “[it’s] less likely that you will [be] seen.”

Being seen by fewer people is a problem in an industry that relies on volume. This is particularly pointed for online sex workers and content sellers who both rely heavily on online marketing and make less per transaction. Smith points out, “We aren’t making a ton of money on each sale. If our volume is being inhibited, our business is being killed.” Of her own business, she says, “Now I have to work 1.3 times as hard to make the same amount of money.”

It’s worth noting that our analysis applies to sex workers who have access to the internet and sophisticated online personalities. Being invisible online is certainly detrimental to sex workers who rely on platforms for income, but we would be remiss not acknowledging that physically and economically marginalized sex workers with little or no access to the internet are de facto invisible to mainstream society.

We also don’t claim to understand the policies or the algorithm math that goes into shadowbanning sex workers. We do know, however, that shadowbanning operates in much the same way as other capitalist business practices do to suppress dissent by marginalized people, even though Twitter is lauded as a tool for engendering free speech. Just like other capitalist businesses, from oil mongers to Silicon Valley techies, social media platforms like Twitter plead ignorance and cast doubt on the experiences of those affected while serious harm is done to them—in this case, a silent erosion of their income and visibility. This practice shames sex workers while insisting that we can be free of any particular platform’s discipline and punishment, so long as we jump through ambiguous hoops designed to ensure our failure.

Other social media platforms, such as Instagram, also disproportionately shadowban, and often outright ban, sex workers’ accounts. While it is easy to chalk these practices up to sexual moralizing, a recent Jezebel report following the banning of porn performer Bella Bathory’s Instagram account suggests that there may be something more insidious going on: sex workers are not just being discriminated against—in some cases they are being extorted, asked to pay large fees to have their accounts restored.

Instagram denies any connection to third party agencies offering to revive sex workers’ banned accounts for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and there’s been no connection proven, but the agencies’ proliferation and the influence some of them have displayed by temporarily reactivating accounts are alarming. Sex and tech journalist Violet Blue reports at endgadget that Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat work with Thorn, an organization founded by Ashton Kutcher that unabashedly calls for the abolition of the sex industry under the guise of battling child sex trafficking. Just like the criminalization of sex work more broadly, the anti-sex work standpoint of major social media platforms lends itself to extortion.

In regards to Twitter itself, at this point we can only speculate on the tech company’s motives. Smith does this when she says, “Two different things are going on. It is about harming sex workers specifically, they want it to be harder for us to make money. But from a technical standpoint, they are disrupting networks; keeping people from connecting to each other in organic ways.” It becomes harder, in other words, for sex workers to do political organizing and to keep each other safe when our networks to connect and distribute information are effectively destroyed.

Indeed, Lynn points out that shutting down access to this information puts the most marginalized sex workers at risk: “Whether it is to market their services, for political use, providing a place to use and amplify voices or not, simply being on Twitter is a way for individuals to connect to a support and safety network of peers & allies…Even without the financial hardships of bans hitting many people who are already doing survival work, there are real life & death issues when people cannot maintain connections with those in their safety networks.”

Lee also points to the importance of social media in sex work communities. They explain, “Our best source of support is one another and at the moment that’s done most effectively through social media. The more we’re able to provide one another with information, to spread resources, give warnings, share recommendations, come together for emergency funding support, or organize political actions, the safer and more empowered we can be.”

At the end of the day, political organizing and empowerment are deeply reliant upon the ability of social media users to find each other. You can’t have a revolution with invisible people, after all. But for many sex workers, it’s not just about the big political and economic factors. It’s about the small stuff that visibility brings to communities.

“If Pornhub is the only way people are interacting with sex workers,” says Roux, “[then] we can’t post our cat or our broken-down car [pictures]. Social media is a humanizing factor, and not having access to that dehumanizes us and our profession.”

While pictures of cats and broken down cars may not seem revolutionary, they nonetheless aid in the larger project towards humanizing sex workers. Moreover, the internet would not exist without sex workers. As socially marginalized people, we have always been a creative and innovative bunch. To that end, it is wildly unsettling that our innovations are co-opted and sold in a marketplace that we’re not even allowed to access. Access to visibility, whether we use it to post pictures of our pets or start the fucking revolution, is indeed a human right. It is a right that is being actively quashed by paternalistic tech companies with help from the surveillance state and moral crusaders.



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