How Your Nonprofit Could Get Banned on Social Media
Imagine this: You run a domestic violence shelter, and your fundraising team is starting to realize that your ads aren't bringing in the money they used to on social media. Or, perhaps you lead a clinic related to women's health, and since reproductive rights is a lightning rod issue, the algorithms on social media decide that it's too hot a topic for ads. Again, your fundraising money and your activist posts take a hit.
Another scenario is you lead an organization supporting Black Lives Matter and broader diversity and equity issues, or perhaps you’re part of an LGBTQ nonprofit. Again, social media platforms deem transgender or adoption rights for LGBTQ people too controversial for your posts or ads. Maybe it's in the words you use or the images and videos you're posting. Nevertheless, you've been quietly silenced — and you don't know it.
That’s shadowbanning. And it can happen to anyone, including your organization.
A Deeper Look at Shadowbanning
Shadowbanning is also called ghost banning, stealth banning, or comment ghosting, but it's all the same, whatever the name. When your organization's ads, posts, comments (or even yours) disappear — and you have no idea — that's shadow banning. As it relates to an ad, you may realize that you're suddenly receiving a lot less money than during earlier fundraisers. However, you have no obvious way to figure it out, and the chances are that a platform like Facebook isn't going to tell you.
It could also happen in comments or posts you share. Let’s say that typically your posts garner 1,000-plus comments and likes, but all of a sudden, on this one post or comment you've made, all you hear is the sound of crickets. The chances are you've been shadowbanned, and your comment or post has vanished. Meaning, no one’s seeing it because the algorithms have throttled or significantly limited the views to that post or comment. Welcome to the digital age with zero oversight or regulation of the social media platforms that have become more like utilities and publishers than simple information and connection platforms.
Is Shadowbanning Legal?
As a lawyer, I enjoy digging into these complex situations that could affect society and your nonprofit. Shadowbanning is legal, but there's nuance in the law. Allow me to explain. In the simplest terms, television and media companies are considered publishers. Since the inception of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others, there has been a special exemption carved out for social media companies.
Nevertheless, when Congress brings in the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook, for instance, increasingly, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are pushing back against the idea that social media platforms aren't publishers. Why is this distinction essential to know? It means that so long as the tech companies aren't publishers, they do not need to comply with Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code in the Communications Decency Act. Essentially, it provides immunity to providers of "interactive computer service" that publish information provided by a third party.
In effect, Section 230 carves out an exemption from any oversight or legal jeopardy for social media platforms. So long as everything remains status quo and they publish our content (we're the third-parties), they can't be considered publishers as are the network news and newspapers (digital or printed), for example. Still, they could publish content that isn't true, is patently false, or maligns someone, and it's all good — at the moment — with the law. And, the powerful algorithms could promote or silence our content, and we don't know how, when or why.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Nonprofits — and, Well, Everyone?
In short, one of the reasons we're swimming in false claims, fake news and shadowbanning is because of Section 230. The exemption allows a free-for-all. As long as Section 230 stands as is, the tech companies have the power to continue to shadowban content they don’t like or want to see on their platforms. Again, perhaps people in a particular state don't want to see content about reproductive rights, guns, diversity or gender issues — and so the nonprofits creating content about those issues get throttled, or their content disappears altogether.
Obviously, if you're in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, it's essential to understand these issues and take steps to protect your organization. However, as a nonprofit leader, it's also necessary to understand what's happening, as it may affect your promotions and the revenue you earn. So, you have to plan for it — especially if you happen to work on an issue that could be controversial in our country (and there are plenty of those).
Still, legislators on both sides of the aisle are starting increasingly to pay attention. As we know, recently, Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook, became a whistleblower by providing 60 Minutes with a riveting interview ahead of her Congressional testimony. Rightly, she spoke about Big Tobacco, opioids and seat belts and how legislators took action after decades of obfuscation about the effects on human lives.
I agree with Haugen. Congress needs to revisit Section 230, and the public and legislators need to decide whether or not social media platforms are publishers, but I argue that it should be broadly considered. Social media companies need to be held responsible for the algorithms and how they rank content — or throttle or make it disappear — as with shadowbanning. We have to protect free speech rights, but we also have to balance that with robust algorithms that decide things with no transparency and even stifle speech — without any of us knowing how or when it's happening.
Paul D’Alessandro, J.D., CFRE, is the author of "The Future of Fundraising: How Philanthropy’s Future is Here with Donors Dictating the Terms." He’s the founder and chairman of High Impact Nonprofit Advisors (HNA), and also D'Alessandro Inc. (DAI), which is a fundraising and strategic management consulting company with more than 30 years of experience in the philanthropic sector.
He has worked with hundreds of nonprofits to raise over a billion dollars for his clients in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, as a nonprofit and business expert — who is also a practicing attorney — Paul has worked with high-level global philanthropists, vetting and negotiating their strategic gifts to charitable causes. Paul understands that today's environment requires innovation and fresh thinking, which is why he launched HNA to train and coach leaders who want to make a difference in the world.