What is shadow banning?

Shadow banning is the go-to-means of silencing voices on social networks which the businesses deem inappropriate for their own platforms but which fail to violate their terms of service. Lately, it has appeared in the news thanks to findings that conservative voices are being silenced on social media sites such as Twitter – wherein accounts are failing to show up in searches despite huge followings.

From a libertarian standpoint, this is completely fine. Social Media companies are, after all, private entities. Therefore in theory, if they don’t want to serve customers, they don’t have too. The markets, at the end of the day, will decide.

However, when such companies take direction from heads of state, does this libertarian standpoint hold up? In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was overheard confronting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over incendiary posts on the social network, amid complaints from her government about anti-immigrant posts in the midst of Europe’s refugee crisis. Now it is not clear if Mr Zuckerberg took up Angela Merkel’s advice, but seeing as many conflate conservative views with the views of people concerned about migration, current developments regarding shadow banning mean that it stands to reason that she was not completely ignored.

One of the biggest issues with this is that many of these companies are the only ways in which people are able to voice their concerns with the rest of the world. Without access to such tools, they find themselves completely handicapped when it comes to getting their views across. When this issue intersects with the larger political landscape, this gives unfair advantage to groups which the owners of social networks sympathize with. This can in many ways then be viewed as a corruption of democracy, no matter which way your political leanings slide.

Last month, Vice news observed that a number of prominent conservatives and right-wing figures in America—such as the chair of the Republican National Committee—seemed to be demoted on Twitter: typing in the person’s name in the search box didn’t reveal their accounts. President Trump castigated the company, promising to “look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once!” Twitter has since firmly denied charges it shadow bans the users: “We do not,” the company said in a statement at the time. In fact, it was cited as an unfortunate bug, which has now been remedied.

How times change: “We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is … is more left-leaning” Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter said at the end of August. Such change of tact does not help change the minds of 85% of Republicans (and those who lean Republican) believe social-media sites censor political views, according to Pew Research.

Recent developments such as the banning of conservative conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones (of InfoWars infamy), by all but one of the major content platforms does little to mitigate these concerns either. Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify all banned Mr. Jones in unison, within a matter of hours. The odds of the alternative, that it occurred without any conspiring at all, are minute to say the least. Conspiracy afoot!(?)

Which is another side effect of this shadow banning. Not only does it give credence to conspiracy theorists, increasing the reach they have and therefore completing the opposite goal of what the shadow banning was suppose to achieve. But, perhaps more importantly, it drives these voices underground. Many people watched Alex Jones, not because they supported his views, but just to see what the other side of the debate was saying, to keep tabs on current thought. Without the yin to the yang, the echo chamber of social media grows, leading to more and more of the same imbalanced debate as what we currently witnessing anyway. Expect more surprise results such as Brexit and the Trump presidency in the future.

Similarly, Facebook has begun to assign its users a reputation score, predicting their trustworthiness on a scale from zero to 1. This is of course to help with Facebook’s long embattled problems with fake news, but, almost immediately, problems arise. To be clear, this this does not mean that there is a single unified reputation score that users are assigned, this reputation score is among thousands of new behavioral clues that Facebook now takes into account as it seeks to understand risk. However, the risk that whoever programs these algorithms incorporates their own personal biases into them, and the fact that users cannot access these algorithms or ratings for themselves seems to be a recurring theme when talking about censorship and Social Media.

As we reported in a previous Long Story Short segment, What is the AI Black Box Problem?, these algorithms must require some level of transparency if the social media giants wish to subdue user concerns regarding censorship, otherwise they are likely to be either accused or fall into the same mistakes time and time again.

So what is shadow banning? It can be viewed as just another example of the difficulties in policing fake news online, or it can be viewed as a more sinister attack on freedom of speech and a form of borderline indoctrination. In any case, it seems that the McCarthian attitude to censoring the other’s position can no longer be attributed to just one side of the political debate. Only time will tell how successful this approach really is.

Amazon: From everything store to everything business

Amazon is overflowing. The company, not the river that is. Founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994, Amazon began as an online bookshop and has evolved into the world’s number one virtual bazaar. Today, it is has manifested into something even more and, with no real rivals or competitors in the market, Amazon continues its quest for world domination.

The company has now begun to dive into a deluge of various business sectors. In the US it is involved in nine of the ten most lucrative industries: “information, manufacturing non-durable goods, retail trade, wholesale trade, manufacturing durable goods, healthcare, finance and insurance, state and local government, professional and business services”.

Traders and investors speak of the “Amazon effect” — the depreciation in value of companies operating in sectors where Amazon is said to be entering. Recently, firms such as Express Script, Aetna and United Health experienced this worrying effect. Amazon, in fact, is launching a new company operating in the Healthcare sector, after having joined forces with JP Morgan and Warren Buffet’s multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. The unnamed Health Venture aims to improve care for the one million employees working for the trio and to enhance efficiency whilst at the same time lowering costs. But this is just the first step: they could offer the same service to other companies, covering their workers, especially middlemen, around 150 million people, as Bloomberg wrote.

In the last ten years, healthcare costs have been rising more than inflation, especially as far as private insurance is concerned – as documented by Peterson-Kaiser’s Health Tracker System – and they are expected to keep soaring. This detail could explain why Healthcare is so enticing to Amazon, and the company has now has paid $1 billion in order to acquire the online pharmacy Pillpack – which packages and delivers pills for chronic illnesses across 49 American states. At the same time, it is expanding its operative radius into the home insurance field. According to The Information, in fact, Amazon would be ready to offer special fares in conjunction with the use of its connected home devices, which can detect the slightest anomaly and signal it in real time.

At a first look, it would seem that Bezos’ strategy is greed-driven and profit-centred. Of course, the smart home market is expected to boom and Amazon will profit from it, but the above acquisition of Pillpack, which has only few thousands of customers is small fry. How could it be valuable to a company which counts its users in millions? Why would Amazon be entering such a strictly regulated sector for such a negligible reward?

The answer is simple: data. Each time Amazon makes an acquisition, it buys another door to access to customers’ lives, getting the chance to know them better. By buying Pillpack or establishing a tech-focused healthcare provider, the Seattle colossus acquires something extremely valuable in the form sensitive health data – allowing it to cross check it with all of the other data previously gathered. It should not be forgotten, after all, that if there is one thing Amazon is master of, it is extracting value from data analytics.

So, the more it learns about us, the more it can sell, earn, consolidate its position, make new acquisitions and learn some more, and so on. Any other firm would be extremely cautious in entering a new market or a business area it never operated in before, yet for Amazon, this has become as natural as breathing. It has bought Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), Zappos (an online shoe and clothing retailer) and Quidsi (an umbrella-company for a series of sites, including baby products online retailer, just to name a few acquisitions.

Further to this, Amazon is branching out in ways not common in the world of data centered companies – it’s acquisition of Whole Foods, for example, a company worth just 2% of the grocery market, allows the online retailer access to its 450 brick and mortar stores. Stores that can be used to launch an Amazon-branded technological revolution in the retail industry.

The retailing powerhouse is also heavily investing in smart home Alexa-powered devices as well. In February, it has bought video doorbell firm Ring for $1 billion to bolster its home security products and to complement Amazon Key, which allows keyless entry and in-delivery service. Two months before, it had acquired Blink, compatible with its smart home line, Echo, for the same reason.

Through the technology already employed in its Smart home segment, Amazon can know how people behave in a physical store, how they select their choice in products, how much time they spend in front of which products as well as sell this fundamental information back to brands. Business professor Vijay Govindarajan told the Guardian that Amazon is “simply obsessed with understanding its customers”.

Amazon Prime Video (APV) perfectly embodies the brand’s philosophy. Born in 2006 as Amazon Unbox, it has become a major internet video on demand service, with an impressive library and the ability to produce original contents. APV is a channel to which only Amazon Prime members can access. This community, amounting to more than one hundred million people, is composed by Amazon enthusiasts who pay a monthly or annual fee to have the items they buy delivered for free within 2 days – as well as big discounts and a smorgasbord of benefits such as music and videos.

Titles like “Amazon is the new Netflix” come easy but they are misleading. The former knows so much more than the latter about its viewers Amazon knows almost everything, so it can easily predict what shows are better suited or will be better received by each member as well as which advertising will be more effective and at what time. It even has technology which allows pausing a commercial if the viewer isn’t watching the screen.

Profits are not pivotal in Amazon’s business strategy. They are not meant to come easy and soon. But they will come. Amazon, which has a market cap of around $740 billion, last year had revenues for $178 billion. If between 2012 and 2018 the S&P Index increased by 102%, Amazon’s value rose by 560%. And it is becoming a powerhouse in advertising as well.

Of course, Amazon has a dark side too. It has been harshly criticized for the way its workers are treated, its supposed positive effects on employment have been questioned and the rise of a giant which in the long run could become a monopolist promises nothing good. So far, what it has given terms of technological innovation has been compromised by the jobs it has displaced by disrupting businesses and by automation of its production flows.

The risk is that considering Amazon as one of the few tech giants currently dominating the world economy, in the same league of Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM or Microsoft when, in fact, it could soon leave them behind. As Marketing professor Scott Galloway wrote on Wall Street Journal: “After spending most of the past decade researching these companies, I’ve come to the conclusion that our fears are misplaced in focusing on what I call the Four. We should instead be worrying about the One”. Guess who it is.