PARIS, FRANCE - June 16, 2023: Elon Musk, founder, CEO, and chief engineer of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla, CTO and chairman of Twitter, Co-founder of Neuralink and OpenAI, at VIVA Technology (Vivatech)

Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Elon Musk railed against shadow bans—now he’s using them on his critics

Musk is a self-appointed free speech crusader. Sometimes.


Steven Monacelli


In January, Elon Musk shared a post that railed against a moderation practice colloquially known as “shadowbanning”—where the visibility of a given account or post is secretly limited but not removed from the platform, creating a Kafka-esque experience where users unknowingly post into the void, only discoverable by people who know exactly where to look.

In August, after the self-appointed free speech crusader renamed the platform to X, he vaguely promised that a new mechanism that tells users if they have been shadowbanned would be coming “soon.”

But as of November, the opposite was happening. Instead of shining a light on the practice, various accounts on X who made critical posts about Musk have been shadowbanned with no explanation.

The specific sort of shadowban applied to these accounts is known as a search suggestion ban, which limits an account from showing up in search results.

Several accounts have been slapped with search suggestion shadowbans in recent weeks, including: this journalist, USA Today journalist Will Carless, an NBC affiliate account focused on LGBTQ+ news, and a Texas anti-cryptocurrency activist group.

There’s plenty of debate around the exact definition of the term “shadowban,” but Musk made clear that search suggestion bans, which effectively deamplify accounts by making them harder to find, fit the definition.

“[D]eamplify means shadowban,” Musk posted in January.

It’s possible these shadowbans could all be due to technical glitches, which have been rife on the platform since Musk’s takeover.

Or perhaps it’s a function of the new “freedom of speech not reach” policy that Musk first announced in November 2022 and X officially adopted in April.

“New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” Musk wrote. “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter. You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet.”

But there could be another reason behind this pattern of search suggestion censorship: several accounts that faced shadowbans in the last month have shared news articles or made posts critical of Musk and right-wing extremists. It’s unclear how or why these posts could be considered negative or hateful, except from the perspective of Musk or right-wing extremists. 

The fact that critics of Musk, who haven’t crossed any clear lines in terms of content or service violations, are being censored from search results—and the silence from Musk and X on the subject—stands in stark relief to Musk’s prior statements. 

On the day he closed the acquisition, Musk said he would be “digging in” to the question of shadowbans. After hiring Linda Yaccarino as the platform’s new CEO in May, Musk said she wouldn’t shadowban users.

My own account was shadowbanned in late October after I posted a thread noting that the Maine mass shooter Robert Card liked a number of Musk’s posts. 

I made a number of other posts critical of Musk around the same time. After a follower informed me that my account wasn’t showing up in search, I ran a quick check on the Shadowban Test website, which confirmed I had been slapped with a search shadowban. Comments from other users confirmed the results.

The same test showed that NBC Out, a division of NBC News featuring LGBTQ-centric news, was also saddled with a search suggestion ban in October after the account shared an article about how some LGBTQ people say the platform has become toxic under Musk’s leadership. 

X also shadowbanned Carless of USA Today, who writes about right-wing extremism and recently released a report about Chaya Raichik, the woman who runs the Libs of TikTok account and is friendly with Musk online. The report found a pattern of bomb threats against subjects of her viral posts—which often are schools and hospitals.

The Shadowban Test website uses a straightforward approach to check whether an account has been banned from search suggestions. It takes a given username, plugs it into the Twitter search bar without logging in, and checks the results. If the account doesn’t show up, that indicates it has been shadowbanned from search.

“Why is Twitter shadow-banning me?” Carless posted on Oct. 11. “I haven’t violated a single TOS. All I’ve done is [write] fair, accurate criticism of this platform and the extremists on it. This is called censorship.”

It’s not just journalists and media outlets that are being hit with shadowbans. The Texas Coalition Against Cryptomining has also been limited in X search results. The coalition is a niche account with fewer than 1,000 followers and a stated mission of advocating for transparency and accountability in cryptomining. But it is outspoken in its criticism of Musk.

“The Musk cult & the crypto cult are both exceedingly cringe & there’s a lot of overlap,” the account posted on Oct. 19.

Search shadowbans make it harder for users to find a given account, effectively banishing them from the search algorithm. Impacted users can still post, and their posts can still be seen and interacted with, but it is far more difficult to find them.

There are some valid reasons why social media platforms might limit certain accounts from search results, such as repeatedly posting sexually graphic, violent, or hateful content. But without an explanation from X or an affected account having a clear history of posting certain types of violative content, it can be difficult to discern why a given account has been shadowbanned 

For example, my account could have been shadowbanned for hateful imagery—which is against Twitter terms of service—because I shared images of neo-Nazis in Texas, whose identities I revealed just days before I was shadowbanned. But other accounts who shared the same images of neo-Nazis were not impacted in the same way. 

Questions sent to X regarding shadowbans received an automated reply: “Busy now, please check back later.”

X lifted the shadowban on my account after being contacted for comment on this story.

The apparent censorship of Musk’s critics is juxtaposed against the platform reinstating various accounts that were previously banned for “hateful conduct.” Among the people whose accounts X recently restored are far-right figures Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson. The move came shortly after Musk commented in response to a post complaining about the bans.

“[What] are their account handles on this platform?” Musk wrote. “Free speech is allowed, provided laws are not broken.”

Meanwhile, Musk has acted as a sort of personal customer service agent for various right-wing accounts and directly intervened on their request since he took over. Back in July, Musk responded to a Libs of TikTok post about being shadowbanned from search results.

“Your account was labeled as NSFW by our dick pic bot on 6/26, because you posted media with nudity from Pride parades,” Musk wrote. “Corrective action is to label the individual posts as NSFW, rather than the whole account. Should be fixed now.”

Before Musk took over the platform, his allies accused the previous management of shadowbanning political opponents. After the acquisition, Musk even attempted to prove that shadowbanning was widespread by providing a set of partisan writers access to internal documents, resulting in reports known as the “Twitter Files,” which raised concerns about content moderation being unfairly applied to right-wing accounts. 

According to Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard University Cyberlaw Clinic, posting graphic or sexual imagery remains a common cause of shadowbans—as was the case for Libs of TikTok. On the one hand, Caraballo acknowledges there could be straightforward technical issues that could explain why Musk critics have been censored. On the other hand, she still thinks there’s reason to suspect another explanation.

“Even on a system that is 99 percent accurate, with something as big as Twitter you’re going to end up getting some false positives,” Caraballo said. “But part of me thinks this is like accusations in a mirror, where they’re minimizing and censoring people that are critical. Musk has famously been very, very harsh on critics and has gone after them in very particular ways. This isn’t something new, there’s a history of this.”

Indeed, in January, journalist Ken Klippenstein faced a search suggestion ban after he posted surveillance footage of a self-driving Tesla crashing. Prior to that, left-wing accounts were removed from the platform on the advice of right-wing extremists.

“It all goes back to the original reasons why Musk wanted to take over Twitter, now X, in the first place,” said Julie Millican, vice president of Media Matters, a nonprofit left-leaning media watchdog. “It’s kind of ironic. He had become deeply convinced that conservative voices were being silenced on the platform, [that] they were the victims of shadowbanning and liberal censorship.”

“But now that he owns the platform, the only people who have radical free speech are the people who agree with and operate within his right wing culture bubble.”

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