By Polina Bachlakova
In October 2020, Facebook updated their terms of service and community guidelines. A few months later, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) followed with a new set of their own. The social media platforms roll out updates regularly, but this time, they caused a particularly vocal uproar amongst sex workers. Although the platforms outlawed soliciting and escorting many years ago, the latest updates were lengthier and more confusing. Vague language, such as outlawing ‘sexual encounters’ and ‘suggestive elements’, made many sex workers fear that these terms of service have set them up for failure and will result in mass shadowbans. Testimonies from sex workers and researchers demonstrate that unfortunately, this is the case.
How did we get here? In 2018, the United States passed an anti-trafficking bill called FOSTA/SESTA — the combination package of US Senate bill SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and House bill FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act). Under the guise of fighting sex trafficking, it altered the fine print in an important bill called S230. Since the 1990s, S230 has protected internet platforms and services from being liable for user-generated content. FOSTA/SESTA changed that by ‘broadly expanding civil and criminal liability for websites with user-generated content’ — including Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms sex workers rely on for business.
Since that bill was passed, Big Tech platforms have quietly upped their content moderation practices and looked for ways to limit user generated content that could put them at liability. (In 2019, for example, Facebook filed for a patent which alludes to developing a shadowbanning technology.) But some people, such as Hoss* — a software engineer, porn producer and privacy advocate — think that FOSTA/SESTA is merely the cherry on top of a problem rooted in the decision-makers and stakeholders. ‘It has a lot to do with advertisers,’ he says. ‘So many apps and websites are paid for through advertising. But brands will only align with companies that they are prepared to be associated with; you’ll never see Nike on PornHub, for example. So if Facebook and Instagram don’t control what kind of content gets put on their platforms, brands cannot control the association they’ll end up with.’
But sex workers increasingly need social media for income, community building and access to harm reduction. And although FOSTA/SESTA only applies to the United States, it impacts the whole world; after all, social media platforms cannot consistently enforce location-specific community guidelines. Moreover, many companies host their content in the United States.
If you’re a sex worker, you might have experienced being shadowbanned yourself — or be worried about it happening. However, there are ways to try to prevent or work through it. At Bedside, we want to help our community safely and effectively navigate shadowbanning. While we can’t guarantee that these techniques are foolproof, we can say that there are ways to fight back. Read on to find out how.
First things first: what is a shadowban?
A shadowban happens when algorithms or human content moderators hide the content you post from your direct and extended community. The ‘shadow’ part comes in because more often than not, you won’t be informed that you’re shadowbanned — nor will you be kicked off the platform as a user. Social media platforms are incentivised to keep you online because your platform helps them generate ad revenue. This means that they’ll keep your account active — but if they deem your content inappropriate, high-risk or low value, your account will not pop up in general searches. Your posts will also be downgraded in your own followers’ feeds, and the images you post will no longer appear in the hashtags you’ve used.
How can you get shadowbanned?
‘Mainstream social media platforms being inhospitable towards sex workers is not anything new, though many of the community guidelines have gotten clearer about what is allowed and more heavily enforced recently,’ says Danielle Blunt, a New York City-based professional Dominatrix and co-founder of Hacking//Hustling. (Hacking//Hustling is a collective of sex workers, survivors and accomplices working to interrupt state surveillance and violence facilitated by technology.)
Simply put, your content breaks the rules when it both offers or asks for sexual services and incorporates suggestive elements. (Check out a brief summary of Facebook and Instagram’s Community Guidelines here.) However, Hoss thinks that shadowbanning is more complex than a direct reaction to your content. According to him, shadowbanning sex workers one-by-one would never work because it would be too time consuming. It’s more efficient to ban people in groups. ‘If you’re in the sex work community, you might notice that when somebody gets shadowbanned, it feels like everybody gets shadowbanned,’ he says. ‘That’s because shadowbanning doesn’t happen immediately when you post something to set off the content moderating algorithm. The technique is waiting a few weeks to make it more difficult for you to figure out which content got you banned, and to find other people to shadowban.’
According to Hoss, this shadowbanning technique is enabled by two things: datr cookies and cross-device tracking. In general, cookies are packets of information that store records of what you do online. Datr cookies are a type unique to Facebook; they exist to detect devices and web browsers being used to go on Facebook (or Instagram) independently of the user. In simpler terms: if you go on Facebook, a datr cookie will get placed onto the device and/or browser that you used. Then, this cookie will store records of what you do on that device or browser for two years — no matter if you’re logged in to Facebook or not. According to Hoss, if a friend of yours uses your browser or device to go on Facebook, that cookie will link you together. ‘This cookie tracks you anytime you’re using a website that has a Facebook “LIKE” button, a “Share to Instagram” button, or Facebook pixel tracking on it,’ says Hoss. ‘So, if multiple users or accounts use the same device or browser, they can all be grouped together.’
Meanwhile, cross-device tracking enables data cookies to store records of a single user across different devices. ‘If you go to a different computer, that cookie follows you and links you together. If you use your phone on the same WiFi network as somebody else, that cookie will link all of those phones together,’ Hoss says. ‘The more that sex workers are in the vicinity of each other, the stronger those links and bonds are. And that’s why you get the community shadowbanning.’
How the shadowban impacts sex workers
In 2020, Hacking//Hustling published a report investigating the effects of the shadowban on sex workers; their research included interviewing 262 sex workers about their business and community online before and after 2020. Hacking//Hustling found that sex workers and allies ‘have noticed significant changes in content moderation tactics aiding in the disruption of movement work, the flow of capital, and further chilling speech’ since FOSTA/SESTA was passed. Specifically, 80.61 percent of the sex workers they surveyed are now ‘facing increased difficulties advertising their services’. The report also found that women of colour and queer people experience platform punishment and policing more frequently than their white, cishetero counterparts on Instagram.
Danika Maia is a Copenhagen-based cam girl who primarily creates content for her OnlyFans. Maia has spent years building up her Instagram, and for a long time, could post nude content and market her services without an issue. In the fall of 2020, something changed. ‘In November, I had my account deleted without warning,’ she says. ‘I was in the middle of a promotional round, so lots of people were pouring into my account and I was advertising heavily in my stories. It might have happened because I was adding links to my OnlyFans and getting people to swipe up to uncensored content.’
Eventually, Maia got her account back. Since then, she’s changed her strategy to adhere to the community guidelines. Now, she talks about sex… without directly talking about sex. ‘You can still market yourself as a sex worker on these platforms,’ she says. ‘You just have to be more strategic.’
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How to market your business without getting shadowbanned
While shadowbans aren’t easy to navigate, there are steps you can take to stop being tracked, follow social media platforms’ guidelines and grow your business.
Tip one: Mind your hardware
‘There are no cheap tactics or easy wins to circumvent the algorithms that shadowban you. Your best bet is protecting yourself via your hardware,’ says Hoss. ‘If you can afford it, use two mobile phones — one for work, and one for everything else. Use a SIM card in your work phone and don’t connect to a WiFi network.’
Taking these precautions might sound a little far-fetched to the uninitiated — but according to Hoss, it’s a necessary response to how tracking works. ‘Every device that connects to the internet has a unique code. When you use an app on your phone — like Instagram — that code essentially logs the accounts that you create or use,’ he explains. ‘That’s why you see people getting shadowbanned again and again: even if they make new social media accounts, they’re still using the phone which they used when they got flagged in the first place. And once you get flagged and your credentials have been saved, it’s like trying to get chewing gum out of clothes.’
Tip two: Use your software wisely
‘My golden rules? Immediately stop using Google Chrome, especially if you’re opening Instagram on your computer,’ says Hoss. ‘Do not put any sexual content on your Google Drive. And don’t use Gmail.’ Basically, avoid using services run by Google. ‘Google will track you worse than Facebook, and Chrome extensions can read the content of your web browser no matter what website you’re on.’
To be even safer, start using encrypted messaging services, like Signal; don’t talk about sex work on anything owned by Facebook or Google (hello, WhatsApp). Turn off your location tracking, too. ‘Remember: these companies can only monitor you as long as they know who you are. If you start taking that away from them, the power isn’t gone — but it’s reduced,’ says Hoss.
Tip three: How you link matters
‘With Instagram and Facebook, you can’t directly drive people to your explicit sites,’ says Maia. ‘So now, I just market through my domain.’
It may be against community guidelines to directly link to content that’s deemed sexually explicit — but it’s not to link to your portfolio or website. ‘The domain I use in my social media bio is basically a fancy LinkTree that includes a link to my OnlyFans,’ Maia explains.
The idea is that when people get to her website, they’ll pretty quickly see a link to her OnlyFans. And platforms like Instagram can’t do much about it. ‘Once people are on your personal site, social media platforms can’t stop you from having an OnlyFans!’, Maia says.
According to Hoss, the more steps you have between your link in bio and your work website, the better. ‘So: you could have a LinkTree. Then, you could have a confirmation step. Next, you could have a third step, like an age verification; and only then could people access your work website,’ he says.
Finally, make sure you don’t mention prices at all on social media platforms. ‘When money starts to change hands or is in the picture, the sexual solicitation rules will apply more significantly,’ says Hoss.
Tip four: Make your work clear without crossing the line
Rather than hoping that people will visit her domain and like what they see, Maia markets herself as an online sex worker — but is careful not to breach community guidelines. ‘I make it very clear on my profile that I make that kind of content, but I don’t use soliciting language,’ she says. ‘And I don’t post any nudes whatsoever; I’m only fully clothed now.’
Last but not least, don’t assume that your DMs are an exception to the rules. ‘Remember: everything you do inside Facebook’s world belongs to Facebook. That means that Facebook and Instagram’s terms and conditions also apply to your DMs,’ says Hoss. ‘Don’t DM someone a link to your work; that’s pretty much the same as having the link straight in your bio. And don’t send soliciting images or talk prices: that information gets scanned the same way as what’s in your stories or on your profile.’
Tip five: Diversify your platforms
To reach more people and be more explicit with her content, Maia uses Twitter. ‘Twitter is the last very popular social media platform that still allows full pornographic content,’ she says. ‘The only thing that has to be censored is your banner and profile photo. It’s still alive and well in terms of marketing, community and information-sharing.’
To network, Maia relies on Telegram — a messaging app that allows you to create groups and channels of up to 200,000 users. (Although Telegram isn’t secure by default, you can choose to make individual message threads secure.) ‘Telegram’s like my new Twitter. I use it for all of my sex worker networking and community-building,’ she says. ‘Basically, all we do is trade advice and services and promotion and shoutouts.
Those are the most well-known platforms, though. Since the shadowban has been making headlines, have any new platforms popped up — ones that are more inviting to sex workers? ‘There are various sites that sex workers are experimenting with, but the issue is that those websites don’t have the same reach as social media like Tiktok, Twitter and Instagram,’ says Blunt. ‘Visibility for sex workers is often a double-edged blade, but on social media platforms, visibility can often directly translate to increased earning.’
Maia echoes the sentiment. ‘We don’t want to go off and make a whole bunch of new platforms,’ she says. ‘We want to be where everyone else is. We deserve to be where everyone else is!’
Tip five: When in doubt — check if you’re shadowbanned
If you suspect that you’ve been shadowbanned, you can check by seeing if your posts show up on hashtag results pages. Otherwise, the sex worker community has developed the Twitter Shadowban Test — a service which checks Twitter accounts for search suggestion bans, search bans, ghost bans, and reply deboosting.
Remember: these tips aren’t foolproof
Even if you’re smart about your hardware, ditch software that spies on you, stick to the community guidelines and diversify your platforms, these tips won’t always work. One reason is that Facebook and Instagram’s terms of service change frequently, which makes it hard to figure out what’s allowed and what’s not at any given time. Another is that the content moderating system is fallible and unreliable. Content moderation algorithms are overwhelmingly built by white, cisgender men; their biases can be programmed into their work. In addition, human content moderators can be severely overworked and struggle to make it through mentally gruelling training without compromising their skills. As a result, things can go wrong: reports have found that content moderators — whether human or machine — accidentally flag content as inappropriate at an increasing rate. This is especially true for women of colour and queer people.
So, we hope that the above tips will help you grow your community on social media platforms. But we also encourage you to keep a regular eye on these platforms’ terms of service to ensure you’re up to speed when they change.
What if you’re a sex educator or community organiser?
If you’re a sex educator or community organiser and you do not sell sex, you should be safe from being shadowbanned. However, anecdotal evidence tells a different story. In 2019, Salty magazine’s content got flagged for ‘promoting escorting services’. This prompted their team to ask their community to see if others have experienced something similar. They surveyed 118 participants, many of whom identified as LGBTQIA+, sex workers, sex educators and plus sized. 54 percent of the respondents said that they had violated community guidelines without knowing why.
The problem partially goes back to content moderation: TechCrunch reported that content moderators are trained to ‘label borderline content when they’re hunting down policy violations’. This means that content moderators can be ill-equipped to tell the difference between soliciting and simply educating about sex.
So if you’re a sex educator, you technically should be in the clear — but be careful about your language and linking all the same.
How to get your account back if it’s been disabled
If you run into some bad luck and get your account disabled, the first thing you should do is file an appeal through the social media platform. Sometimes, you’ll have to get in touch with the platform’s technical support team via email; but these days, it’s easier than that. For example, Instagram recently announced a new feature which allows you to dispute the decision directly in-app. If filing an appeal doesn’t work, you can try to get legal assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — a non-profit defending civil liberties in the digital world.
How to support people you follow who are at risk of being shadowbanned
While we can’t stop shadowbans from happening, we can decrease their likelihood by interacting with sex workers’ platforms. ‘Allies and accomplices of sex workers can uplift and share the work of sex worker organisers. Organising under a shadowban is incredibly challenging; it adds an added layer of difficulty in moving information outside of the directly impacted community,’ says Blunt. ‘You can financially support organisations like Hacking//Hustling with donations. Allies can retweet sex workers, and interact with our content. It is important that allies and accomplices also advocate for the decriminalisation, destigmatisation and decarceration of sex workers.’
Perhaps there’s a long-term silver lining, too. ‘The difficulties sex workers are experiencing on social media right now come down to conservative ideology. But ideologies are living things: they change — and they can die,’ says Hoss. ‘Everything that is living fights hardest when it’s dying. This is what’s happening right now: these organisations and decision-makers are fighting hard, because they know that this is their last stand. In the long run, they’re not going to win.’