The Problem with Shadowbanning on Reddit and Beyond: A discussion with Reveddit Owner Robert Hawkins

Show Notes

In this video, we sit down with Robert Hawkins, the owner of Reveddit, to discuss the problem of shadowbanning on Reddit and beyond. Shadowbanning is a controversial practice that involves hiding a user’s content without their knowledge, effectively silencing their voice and limiting their reach. Robert shares his insights on the impact of shadowbanning on online communities, the reasons behind its use, and the potential solutions to this problem. Whether you’re a content creator, a social media user, or simply interested in the topic, this discussion is a must-watch. Join us as we explore the problem of shadowbanning and its implications on the online world.

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Johnny Sanders (00:09):

All right, well welcome everyone to another episode of Faithfully Engaged. I have a very unique guest here today. His name is Robert, and I’ll go ahead and kick it off to Robert A. Little bit and have him introduce himself and we’ll get into it. So Robert, it’s good to see you today. Tell us the audience a little bit about yourself.

Robert Hawkins (00:28):

Yeah, it’s good to see you, Johnny. Thank you so much for having me on. I am not your typical guest. I am not a counselor. I am a software engineer and I’m living in Taiwan, although I will say that my father is from Oklahoma, so we have that connection. He was born there and I think stayed there until he was five or six years old and then moved out of state. But anyway, there’s some connection and yeah, I’m a software engineer living in Taiwan, and I’ve built this website called, which shows people what gets removed from their Reddit account and we can talk a little bit about why that’s important and maybe how we connected too.

Johnny Sanders (01:18):

Wonderful. Like I said, I’m really looking forward to this in part because this is a little bit of a different guest, but I think this is just such an important topic. Before we kind of get into that, I’m just curious because I didn’t know that about your dad. What do you know where in Oklahoma that he was at?

Robert Hawkins (01:34):

I think he was born in Lawton.

Johnny Sanders (01:37):

Oh, okay. Yeah,

Robert Hawkins (01:39):

So south of Oklahoma City like you, right?

Johnny Sanders (01:42):

Yeah, so Lawton is our closest kind of city of note. I’m in Duncan and it’s 23, 20 4,000, something like that. And Lawton’s right around a hundred thousand, so that’s like 30 minutes away. So I’m well versed of Lawton for sure.

Robert Hawkins (02:01):

Yeah, and there was another city which is escaping me just south of Oklahoma City, but I’ve forgotten. Sorry

Johnny Sanders (02:14):

That that’s okay. Okay, so on the geography type of thing, you mentioned that you’re in Taiwan. I know probably a lot of the audience knows some of, there’s some tech things that certainly go on in Taiwan, but when I first got in touch with you and hear Taiwan’s like I don’t think I’ve met anybody that’s lived in Taiwan. So kind of share with the audience your journey to making it into Taiwan.

Robert Hawkins (02:49):

So I guess it started maybe 11 years ago. I was living in New York City working as a software engineer and for a financial data services company and maybe just looking for something new and different. And I had a friend who had moved to Laos, his now wife at the time had taken a job working for NGO over there. And so it was a travel opportunity to go and check it out. And in the back of my mind I was kind of thinking, well, I could backpack around here a little bit. I had seen other people’s experience doing that, browsing the internet, actually using the website. We’ll talk a bit about later Reddit to read about people’s experiences traveling around Asia. And I thought, I’m 30, this was in 2012 and maybe it’s a good time to broaden my horizons. And long story short, once I got to Taiwan, I was meeting a friend here who I’d also met in my travels and I ended up meeting my wife. We married in 2016, had our daughter in 2018, and that pretty much brings us up to now.

Johnny Sanders (04:14):

Great. Yeah, it’s always interesting to me of just hearing those stories. Everybody kind of weaves their own path. I don’t think I’ve told you this, but I’ve, I’ve got a cousin that he and his wife are in South Korea, so they’re just kind of experiencing some of those cultural differences and things like that. But they moved there. You could call it unfortunate or fortunate, I don’t know what you would want to call it, but it was really right smack dab in the middle of Covid and some of their stories of some of the isolation things that they had to do when they first came in. I know we have that stuff that’s happened in the United States, but very different in Asian cultures. There’s not quite the backlash or anything, it’s just you do what you’re told and it was just, it’s very different experience in Asian cultures like that, which I’m sure you are very well aware of.

Robert Hawkins (05:13):

Yeah, that’s true. Taiwan kind of dodged a bullet with Covid. We were only really kind of restricted to our homes and necessary, necessary going outings for a couple of weeks over the whole period. I did have a concern though that that was going to be the case and right at the beginning of it I thought, should we just try to go back to the us? But it wasn’t quite an option because my wife would need a visa to go there and that takes quite a while to prepare. So just kind of thought, well, we’re just going to have to deal with it, whatever comes. And it turned out to be sort of a blessing, I guess.

We really didn’t get hit too hard. Although what you described I think about the Asian cultures is true. There is no resistance to masking here, for example. Part of that is perhaps because people often wear those masks on their scooters while they’re riding around anyway for sort of particulate resistance, don’t get too much dust in your nose and face and stuff. But yeah, I feel somewhat lucky to be here during that time. But I’m also looking forward to, we are planning to move back this year and hopefully this year and I’m looking forward to getting back to the land of the free.

Johnny Sanders (07:00):

Yes. So I think that’s a great segue into talking about the Meat of things here. But before we get into your website and everything, I have a pretty decent idea of what Reddit is. I used to frequent it quite often, but I know there’s probably some people that are listening that don’t really know what that is or maybe they’ve heard of it, but isn’t it just like Facebook or whatever. So can you give us just a real quick overview of what Reddit is?

Robert Hawkins (07:31):

Yeah, I want to do that. Let me go back to the Asia thing for one second. I’m sorry. I wanted to point out while I was traveling East Asia that once in a while I would meet somebody whose English was impeccable and I would always let them know your English is remarkable. How did you get that skill? Because I knew that a lot of people want to learn a foreign language, maybe English or Chinese or another to get another job opportunity to have an international position, maybe to have a higher salary. And I can’t speak for the other languages, but whenever I asked somebody how their English got so good, they would always respond that they had learned it from joining a Christian group. Wow. Which nine times out of 10, that was the answer I got. So I wanted to be sure to mention that on your show before we got into my own stuff.

Johnny Sanders (08:43):

No, that’s a really great point and that that’s kind of going back to my cousin, that’s part of what he’s doing is it’s through a Christian school. And just another kind of quick on some of the cultural differences, this is obviously kind of broad strokes. I know it doesn’t hit everybody, but in the states, particularly in a typical public school situation, it’s kind of the general student I guess would just be, how do I get through this? I just want to graduate, get done with it. It’s not a get the best score possible. And I know that there are some students out of that way. Again, it’s kind of broad strokes. In my cousin’s school, they’ve actually made laws against essentially bribery for the teachers so they can’t received gifts and things like that because the students would give so much gifts that they were going to get special attention and be able to get more study time and things like that.

The value there of education is through the roof. And I think that’s great that you pointed out that it’s not a hundred percent, but a lot of that is these Christian based organizations or schools, things like that. Yeah, I’m so glad that you pointed that out because sometimes, particularly in here in the United States, we’re used to some of the just narrative that kind of the oppressor and oppressed thing. And since Christianity is at the top, therefore all they’re doing is oppressing other people. And that’s kind of a quick little antidote there of saying, well no, there’s actually, maybe there can be some bad things, but that’s a good thing. So no, I think that’s a fantastic example for sure.

Robert Hawkins (10:37):

Yeah, that’s so interesting that you have, did you say it was your cousin who’s in Yes, South Korea. Yeah. I’m have a lot of respect for anybody who’s in that, who’s doing that kind of work.

Johnny Sanders (10:55):

Yeah, no, it’s it, it’s one of those things where I don’t necessarily think everybody is called to have to travel or go across the world or whatever, but I do think sometimes, particularly here and we’re in the Bible belt and everything and it’s great there. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity and some things that are impacted in our culture, which again is good, but sometimes we’re so apt to just want to stay here and have roots and have families that generations down the line stay here. And again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but you can be apprehensive of why aren’t you going to South Korea? Why aren’t you going to Taiwan? Just stay here. And I find that exciting to hear not just my cousin, but other people that do kind of broaden out a little bit to see the rest of the world because there, there’s a bigger world than just your backyard out there.

Robert Hawkins (11:54):

And I definitely did get that question from my family and some friends I felt a little bit more free to do it. I’m a youngest child by several years. I have an older brother and older sister and they each have their own families, so I felt a little bit more free to go out and explore a bit more. But yeah, it’s something that comes up and it’s a fair question and it’s often got an interesting answer I think.

Johnny Sanders (12:29):

Yeah. Yeah. And like I said, it is a fair question. It’s different. I say all that I’m in my hometown where I grew up. My parents are five minutes away, so clearly not against people staying in their home, but we don’t have to downgrade other people or think that they’re just making the worst decision ever if they do decide to go elsewhere because that there’s good things that you can do and other places as well.

Robert Hawkins (12:54):

Yeah, I, I don’t have anything against anybody who stays in their hometown either. I think just seek, first to understand is Stephen Covey would say, and everybody’s got their own story.

Johnny Sanders (13:14):

Absolutely. Well, we certainly can hit more on the Asian type of the travel side of conversation, but do you want to go ahead and jump into some of the Reddit conversation?

Robert Hawkins (13:29):

Yeah, let me answer your question that I jumped away from. Sorry. You’re good. So I think you asked what are the differences between Reddit and these other more mainstream social media? And I think there are three. One is that you’re not expected to use your real name on the site, kind of uses the old just username aspect to it. There’s not much to your profile typically. So it’s kind of anonymous if you choose to make it that way. And most users do. Another way is it’s organized into these self-managed groups. So rather than the others which are only moderated by the platform itself, end users I suppose, because users can report content to the platform and then they can choose to action it or not. Reddit also empowers some users to become moderators, sort of just a page manager on Facebook actually. But it’s a little bit elevated on Reddit because you get to have a special group name. So there will be like is a quite large one. It has over 20 million members. So if you are a moderator of one of these kind of intuitively named groups, you potentially have more influence over the conversations that go on in there than other users. And then the third difference I would identify is their comment sections, which can get quite deep.

It’s a little bit better organized in the sense that who’s replying to whom. That’s not always so clear on Twitter or Facebook because you only have one or two levels of replies and then you kind of have to guess where the conversation is and if there’s a lot of comments in there. Reddit has this kind of hierarchical organization, kind of like an outline that you might make for organizing notes or writing a paper. And so every comment has one parent and you can jump into whichever subsection of the conversation you want to get into. So those are the three main differences I would say is that it’s anonymous, organized into subgroups and the comment sections and the comment sections kind of go along with Reddit’s motto actually, because their current motto is dive into anything.

Johnny Sanders (16:42):

And it’s a great motto and the, I’m just kind of getting to more of my opinion on things here, the structure of it, I think that’s why it’s so popular, particularly in more so in our age type of range. When you take it back to some of the early days of Facebook, I remember when I first got on it, I was actually one of the first adopters on Facebook of Leviton high school students in, and in order for me to get in, this is like 2006 or something, in order for me to get in, I had to be invited by somebody from my high school and previously you had to have your college email or whatever. So it was a fairly exclusive group. And then I don’t remember the exact year, 2008, so nine something like that is when it just mass opened and now literally everyone in their grandma has a Facebook, everybody has one and pros and cons to that.

But Reddit, not that you can’t have a 70 year old that’s on Reddit, but typically that’s not the norm there. That’s on kind of more of our age demographic, people that have grown up with the internet, a little bit more internet savvy. And because of that, I saw that actually as a great strength that you had your own kind of language, you, you’re able to share memes with each other before they got shared out into to the whole world. So I love the way that you talked about the anonymous side. It’s kind of taken the internet back to its roots. Back in the beginning days you just had a lot of forums and things like that, and it was car lover 2, 3, 2 32 or whatever. You didn’t have your name on it. And so there’s a lot of benefits there to the structure of Reddit leading into that. Well, let me just phrase it this way. So thus far what we’ve described has been pretty good. So what’s the problem? Why should there be any issue? Let’s just let Reddit do its own thing. What’s kind of going wrong? The issue with Reddit?

Robert Hawkins (19:05):

Yeah, good question. So the issue is when a moderator removes your comments on Reddit, it will still appear to you as if it’s not removed. You will get no indication while you’re logged in that anybody that nobody else can see it. Now, once in a while, moderator may send you a message to let you know that it’s been removed, but that is by and far not the norm, at least not these days.

Johnny Sanders (19:35):

So with that, I post, oh, again, lemme phrase that again as a question. What’s the issue of that? If you’re posting something that is wrong and the moderator gets rid of it, why should you know about it? Why shouldn’t the moderator just be able to do what they want and you just need to get over it? Why is this such a big deal?

Robert Hawkins (19:59):

Good question, and I think it doesn’t occur to a lot of the moderators, at least at first. They don’t necessarily want to deal with somebody who knows that their content has been removed. But there are two reasons why users do deserve to know that their content has been removed and why it’s actually good for the forum. The first one is obvious. If you don’t tell people that their content has been actioned for violating some rule, they have no chance to learn the rule from their own experience. This is sort of taking away the judiciary or public court from say a governmental system. So I’m not arguing that there should be no moderation. I’m also not arguing that private platforms are somehow constrained by the constitution. They have this thing called Section two 30 that protects their right to moderate content.

But yeah, if a user doesn’t know that they’ve been actioned for violating some rule, how can they be expected to change their behavior in the future? And sorry, I’m having some brain fog, but that okay. Yeah, it kind of keeps people stuck in these groups and that becomes a big headache I think for users and moderators alike. You don’t have an opportunity to learn the rules, you won’t change your behavior and you have no opportunity to say go elsewhere if you find that parts of your speech are unacceptable. And this is not your typical shadow ban, which is what the general public understands today. The shadow ban I believe in the media is typically talked about as if it’s applying to your whole account.

But in this case it’s individual pieces of your content. So it could be anything from a keyword to the topic that you’re talking about to a certain link that you shared it. It just happens so frequently. And in fact, at least over 50% of Reddit users have some removed content in their recent history that they likely don’t know about. I’ve got a button on my site that just takes you to a random Reddit user and if you open that in 10 tabs, five or more will have some removed comment. And most of the time they aren’t notified about it. So I think one thing that led me to you a little bit is just trying to find someone who’s willing to discuss this subject somewhat shockingly.

And maybe it’s because I’m in Taiwan and I’m 12 hours off, so I’m asleep when you’re awake and vice versa. So it’s hard to reach the tech journalists, and I’m just trying to give the benefit of the doubt, but my sense is after several months, I mean since last summer, almost a year of trying to focus on not writing code for this, but trying to contact an organization or journalist to write about it, my sense is that many think that this is okay or that we just shouldn’t talk about it. This sort of secret removing of content. So the conversation that you see in public generally now with the exception of maybe discussion about the Twitter files in early December of last year, where they did bring up something about visibility filtering, which was Twitter shadow ban, which with the exception of that, the conversation is all about what content should get removed.

The discussion of how content is getting removed is not happening. So I hope to jumpstart that conversation somehow. Yeah, I not, I never imagined myself to be any kind of public speaker, but I just thought I could build the website. In fact, I thought this would be a two week project. In the beginning I thought, oh man, this is nuts. I noticed that my own comment had been after six years of using Reddit, in fact, I noticed I was looking for a data sciencey project to work on, and there was this data set of Reddit comments that somebody had collected, and I was poking around the Reddit API and trying to see what I could do with it. And then I noticed that one of my highly upvoted comments had been removed, but I knew that it still looked to me as if it was there because I had gone back and seen it there.

So I immediately, I just realized, well, this is completely unexpected and I bet I could build a tool that shows when this happens and people would like it and then everybody will know in a couple of weeks because it’ll just go viral on its own because that’s how the truth works. It just goes viral, right? Little did I know that’s not how it works. And that was almost five years ago in 2018, and I had continued to assume along the way here that a story would just come out on its own. And I thought for sure once I started to reach out to places like the A S C L U, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all these organizations that have free expression in their mission statements or their priorities would surely be interested in this topic. But it, it’s sort of become so ingrained in internet culture and I, I’ve had to do some research myself to understand where this came from because at first my impression was, well, okay, this is just on Reddit.

And that seemed bad enough to me and I thought it was, to be honest with you, I thought it was isolated to being abused in a certain portion of Reddit. So as I perceived it at the time that I looked at this in 2018, I went straight to Donald Trump’s subreddit, which is called the Donald, and not only were the things that you would expect to be removed, got removed comments, say supporting Hillary Clinton or whatever, criticizing Trump from clearly left-leaning users. But there were also criticisms from subscribers of the Donald that were also removed. Things like, I don’t like that General Mattis is leaving, for example, might get removed or I’m not concerned trolling, but this bill is not us about some bill about immigration or something. So it, it’s just sort of lets you manipulate the apparent consensus, I think to maybe give the sense that there is unity or there might not be.

Now let me just say because I don’t want to try to make the point that this is just right-leaning people who are making use of this tool. This tool is all over the internet that I’m just describing. That was my perspective at the time when I first started working on this. And now I look at it and I see comments getting removed by, not just by moderators, but by the administrator, the employees of Reddit, for saying things like men are not women and about the trans topic. And I’m interested in that subject both because I have a kid and also because it’s directly related to this speech thing. And again, I think it’s fine if forums are moderated, but when you take it to where it’s secretly moderated, it’s starting to look a lot more these darker periods in our past McCarthyism, communism, the issues with the printing press, and I suspect we may find ourself in that period. Again, this is one of those new technologies that few people really kind of know how it works. So it allows some power plays. I think that the rest of us just are not totally tuned into

Johnny Sanders (30:37):

When you’re talking about the own experience of here’s this comment I had. Oh, well maybe just nobody replied to it or no big deal. I’ll just do another one. And you have no idea, you’re right there. The concepts that are just inherent to something like Reddit, well, we’ll get off the internet for a second. Well, let’s just say you’re at school as a kid, you say something that is off-putting, you get in trouble by the teacher. Your friends are like, dude, that wasn’t cool. You shouldn’t have said that. You’re getting those kind of natural type of consequences in your language and your behavior and that helps shape things it you’re doing that same thing on the internet and maybe by a moderator to say, look, dude, here’s the rules. We have these rules laid out. You clearly broke number three or whatever, here’s your ban or whatever the punishment is.

But you’re getting that clear consequence and what you’re describing there, that’s not happening at all when that is being used. So behavior’s not being changed, there’s just silence and silence is not the way that not just these platforms are supposed to work. How a healthy society, even with free speech especially, it’s not about saying things that are necessarily right. You can have your free speech and be as way off base as possible, but you’re going to face consequences for saying something down. If you come up and say something really mean about my wife in front of her, you’re going to get a consequence. I’m not necessarily doing a threat thing, but we’re going to either walk away from you, I’m going to tell you, Hey, stop talking about my wife. That way consequence. But if I just ceased to have that person talk, it’s like they never even existed again.

There’s no consequence there that is just so, it’s so damaging to the online discourse and I appreciate your kind of grace and trying to give the benefit of the doubt to some of these publications and organizations. I don’t necessarily think that any of that grace is necessarily what’s deserved there because there does seem to are enough people out there. Here’s what I would say enough people in the know that something could and should be said about it. And that sounds like pretty willful ignorance, just putting hands over my ears and acting like it’s not there. Yeah, that’s very

Robert Hawkins (33:39):

Difficult. You’re spot on. You’re spot on. Johnny you, you’re just smarter than I’m, I mean because of where you are and what you were brought up with you, you’re just more tuned into this than I am. And I’ll say, I was really excited to talk to somebody who studied psychology about this topic because I always felt like it would be most obvious to you guys the harm that this does. And you described it perfectly right there. You’re not letting people see the consequences of their actions. Now, if you go and have this conversation with anybody in person, in my experience, they will agree with you, this should never happen. This should not be a thing. But if you have this conversation with somebody online, particularly anonymously who is a moderator, they have several reasons why they need this sort of exception to decorum. They will say, we need it for spam, we need it for bots, we need it for trolls.

And none of these arguments hold water. Okay, let’s take bots for example. These are coded up by a programmer who’s trying to push out some message. If somebody has coded up something to send messages on the internet, they’re going to check if those are visible. And so what this and works their to spread that message far exceeds any normal users because they’ll just be able to propagate it everywhere. Whereas for a genuine user, I have background as a data scientist, it did not occur to me for six years while using commenting on the internet that this would be something that a website much less a popular website would do.

So it hurts genuine users more than it hurts bots. In fact, it strikes me as the position that spammers would take that if 10% or 50% or even 90% of my stuff gets removed, I don’t care. I can always make more. Whereas the rest of us, if you’re a good faith social media user, you’re just a real person. Forget the good faith judgment, not going to spend all this time to, or even think to check while you’re logged out, whether your comment is visit visible to other people. So there are all kinds of arguments that moderators online will give to say that they need these tools. And I just don’t think any of them hold up. I’ve had this conversation many times with them because I will actively seek it out. What are you guys saying to justify this? I want to hear it and I want to have some debate with you about it.

I know you will only do it in an anonymous form. And unfortunately, many of the, I think well-meaning folks, you know say, don’t give them a benefit of doubt, but this is all I can do. We’ll look to say the government or say some publicly published principles for an answer to this. So for example, there’s something called the Santa Clara principles, which were sort of underwritten by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the A C L U and signed off by I think Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and some others, which are supposed to be these guidelines in how the platforms behave and moderate content. And if you read those closely, they still permit not sending a notification about removed content in certain scenarios such as spam or any scenario that is delineated in the platform’s policy. So basically whatever the platform says in their policy, if they write, we’re going to not send a notification for this type of bad comment, then that’s okay by the Santa Clara principles, which are supposed to be these a higher, make you a more respectable platform. And then there’s also some government policy that’s going through in the US and in Europe, in the US it’s called the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act. And in Europe it’s called the Digital Services Act. And I think both of these also have an exception for shadow banning content. And look, I don’t think that the solution is going to be found in government anyway, and who knows, maybe if there is discussion about this, about making that kind of law, then that will help raise awareness about the issue.

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but yeah,

Johnny Sanders (40:16):

It is interesting just as some of the tech stuff has been really interesting to me. And in part to share a little bit of my own journey specifically with Reddit, I was somewhat active. I was mostly a lurker as what they would call people on there that basically I’m viewing Reddit, these subreddits, but not necessarily interacting. I’m just kind of reading posts. So somewhat active on there. I’m thinking 2014, 15, somewhere in that timeframe is when I was the most active. And just to put a little bit of context here, this was during the Obama presidency and Reddit, more of a was always been more of a left-leaning type of sight, not by, they weren’t specifically promoting anybody or anything just because of the user base and some tech things tend to be a little bit more leftward. But I say all that to say that I had absolutely no problem with that, even as somebody that was more conservative leaning and I didn’t do anything political on there.

I was looking at pictures of mountains and I don’t know, I was looking at some sports Reddits and then sometimes just the front page. I always liked that because there’d be some crazy story about nothing. It was almost like a live real life Seinfeld type of thing sometimes because it was just stuff about nothing. But it was so interesting the way that was presented. It would just have real life stories that everybody was involved with. You just felt like this community that by and large we had our differences, but you could go on any Reddit or go on the front page and by and large you’re just hanging out with people. It, it’s the market square and not just Reddit, but Twitter, Facebook, everything. Definitely. I saw this anecdotally the 2016 presidential election that it was awful. It was like the only thing that I ever saw was something political.

And granted it was a presidential cycle, so I was expecting there to be more, but there was something deeper than the whole mood shifted. It just seemed dark. You had people pitted up against each other and I didn’t like it. So I ended up taking several year break off basically all social media. I got married in 2017 and right before I got married, pretty much off of all of it up until really this last year, just when I got my own business going, just thought that would be kind of better for my business to have a little bit more of an online presence. So came back and from what I’ve seen, Facebook is, yeah, I mean it’s still pretty, Facebooky just has its own set of issues. Twitter, certainly post Elon Musk, not saying it’s perfect, but by and large it’s able to at least make it to where it’s not too terribly bad.

But I tell you, every once in a while about once every four or five months, I’ll just go onto Reddit, just I don’t have an account anymore, but just go to the front page and almost every single time there is something politically charged right up at the top. And that again, I, I don’t have my own subreddits. That is just what the front page is and that gets tiring very quickly. So I guess on your end, this could either be anecdotal or if you have any type of evidence. When do you think that not necessarily this technology came in, but that we kind of saw this shift that it went from here’s just this place to meet online and it’s kind of more fun loving to just, they really turned that knob of the censorship. Do you have about a timeframe of when that really seemed to take over?

Robert Hawkins (44:45):

I don’t have a good answer for that. I tried to be scientific to go back and look at the code base because Reddit is open source and see if I could figure out if there was a change at some point that changed how this thing that I look at worked. So I don’t know if it happened in 2012 or before, but I think your question is more about when did everything become so political? My read on this after listening to a lot of podcasts while trying to contact people who might be interested in this subject is that there’s sort of been this progression on the internet towards it being more and more useful for political campaigning.

And I think Howard Dean might have been noted is one of the early successful online campaigners. And then Barack Obama had his own campaign site, which was called Mabo, which I had never heard of, but I heard Brandon Silverman, who was the founder of CrowdTangle, which was later acquired by Facebook. They showed content that got popular on Facebook. And this tool, CrowdTangle was popular among journalists for tracking what tended to be shared there. Anyway, he, he’s quite knowledgeable about the history of this stuff and he has talked about Barack Obama’s campaign website as being the first successful online community organizing. So I don’t know exactly how that website worked because it was shut down after he won the election. But yeah, I think there’s been this progression and so I’m not totally clear on was there this moment where everything activated into being political or if it’s just my perspective that I sort of felt like it started getting intense around 2015, 2016. Yeah, I sort of recall, I’m Reddit. There was some activity about Ron Paul in the ear earlier years. So yeah, I don’t know, maybe it’s always been there and we just didn’t know about it

Johnny Sanders (47:40):

That that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that during the Ron Paul years. I was on the internet but not on, that was more of that Reddit type of crowd there and I just didn’t really experience that. So I do think there’s something to that. I think this goes back into some of the shadow banning and everything as well though, that kind of like you said earlier of talking to people in person, anybody I’ve ever talked to in a personal life is like, yeah, I’m tired of all this politics on Facebook, Twitter, where wherever there, there’s clearly a role for it, but people are like, I just want to share pictures of cats or something. Just have a low intensity type of environment. So no people want it. And I guess this kind of goes into another discussion here of what can be done for just regular you and me, just regular people that are seeing either their comments and stuff being taken away or just the discourse in general is just gross, whether you’re a Republican democrat or whatever, I think everybody could agree. It just gets tiring after a while. So what can just everyday people that don’t necessarily have a tech background, what do you think they can do to improve their kind of online experience?

Robert Hawkins (49:18):

Well, I would first, I would say prioritize your offline experience. It’s about priorities both times when you were just talking about having the political stuff be so much in your face. I was thinking, I actually read a couple of books on your book list, the one about fathers being shepherds by, is that by body?

Johnny Sanders (49:49):


Robert Hawkins (49:50):

And I haven’t watched his video yet, but I did listen to another podcast you had posted where somebody mentioned that he has a good series on children and something about Caesar. Anyway, the idea was that the idea was that parents ought to be more involved in their kids’ education and that maybe we shouldn’t be shuttling them around to all these activities all the time, keeping them so busy. And so these are really mind blowing ideas for me to think about. Our daughter does go to a school right now and it seems okay, I mean she’s only four, so it’s mostly playtime, but schooling can be pretty actually in Taiwan is very intense. Kids are often in school and they come home for meals, even dinner afterwards they’ll go back to something called cram school where they’re focused on learning English. So it is very intense here and I don’t have plans to send my daughter through any of that e e even if we remain in Taiwan.

But yeah, I think the first thing is prioritize offline over online. But when you are online, it’s too easy to see and do what you want. And this is one of those ways, the secret removal stuff where you don’t realize that it’s another way that you’re not seeing the consequences of your actions. So I think maybe you can try to create content on something that you own, like you’re doing with your own website. It’s going to be far more difficult for somebody to have that taken down compared to say a social media platform where your account can be banned and everything can disappear in a second.

And maybe you can also try to seek out conversations with people with whom you might not have the same experience or totally see eye to eye like you and I and try not to go on just to score points against people. And I think that will lead you to naturally disconnecting from conversations at the right moment. I think there is a place for ignoring or silence in face-to-face conversations. Everything doesn’t need to be spoken out. Sometimes actions speak louder than words and that can happen online too. So healthy use of social media I think is a great focus and we could all do with more, I don’t know what to call it, social media literacy about how this stuff all really works.

Johnny Sanders (53:13):

That when you were talking about earlier of talking to someone with more of the psychology background, that is something on just the psychology of social media, especially for teenagers, for minors, I know that they’re coming out with more and more, but an incredibly important topic just because we’ve nev this is new social media and the grand scheme of things is still new, but definitely with kids being raised up with it, even in more of our type of generation, it’s not like we didn’t have any technology, but we didn’t have smartphones growing up. No, no way. And now seeing that with kids that their life is online, you need to be very careful with that. And if you’re a parent, what I would say is start off, set some limits with your kids, but what are you doing? Because I, I’ll tell ’em myself real quick with my kids, got a three year old and a one and a half year old son and then another child on the way. There’s times where if I’m on my phone doing whatever, my daughter has actually physically taken the phone down because she wants my attention, she wants to play with me. And talking about consequence, that was a good consequence for me that showed me there in that moment. My daughter doesn’t care what I’m doing online. She wants to see me, she wants to be involved with me. So start with that, show your kids a healthy limit to social media. If they’re 14, maybe you don’t let them get on at all.

There are definitely some negatives there. But regardless if you’re an adult, if you don’t even have kids, you can’t live your life fully online. I know there’s some talks more, maybe more in the extreme version of the conservative view that would almost villainize all technology. And we don’t want to do that. We’re in Taiwan and I’m in Oklahoma. That’s really cool that we’re getting to talk to each other. So don’t villainize the technology, but we need to use it as tools. And oftentimes these tools are kind of using us. So I love that as your first line of defense there is improve your offline life, go play with your kids, do something and not make social media your validation, especially with all the bad things that some tech companies are doing, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you’re getting all your life satisfaction from your online life. For sure.

Robert Hawkins (56:06):

Yeah, it’s about priorities. We don’t have to get rid of the internet or Reddit or social media and it’s about understanding how they work. And I think putting offline life first,

Johnny Sanders (56:26):

What about going more specifically on the shadow banning? So let’s assume these individuals like, okay, I’m either limit my social media time, I feel like I’m pretty good there, but I’m really concerned about this shadow banning that’s and Reddit and Facebook and all the other places. What can they do to at least take this conversation on or any practical steps they can do to maybe help try to resolve this situation?

Robert Hawkins (57:02):

So for all these services, I’ve written a little bit about this. They all have some functionality like this, Facebook has a button hide comment. They allow a page manager to remove comment or hide comment. In fact, YouTube interestingly all removed comments work this way. There’s secret removals. So if I go to your channel and I write Johnny, you suck and sorry, umble that out, you’re

Johnny Sanders (57:34):


Robert Hawkins (57:35):

And you remove it, it will still show to me as if it’s it’s it’s not been removed. And look, I get it, that’s easier for you. But another issue with this type of removal is YouTube does not tell the creator that that’s how the removal works. So people are shadow banning each other without even realizing probably that that’s going on. I mean, I had to use my wife’s YouTube account to test it on my page because I couldn’t get it working with my own. And I just find that really shocking that not only do platforms empower people to do this to each other on mass so much that it occurs so often that probably every social media user has probably been moderated at some point without their knowledge it it’s that prevalent. And I see this having an impact on all kinds of topics, all kinds of geographies, all of ’em left and every country, anything you can think about, something’s getting shadow removed. So sorry, I actually forgot what your question was.

Johnny Sanders (59:11):

Yeah, so it’s for those people that recognize that hey, that these things, this is a big problem, what can they do? What can I do about it? Yeah,

Robert Hawkins (59:22):

So I guess the good thing is that you don’t even necessarily, an easy answer to that would be like, well, if you have a Reddit account, you can go to the website that I built rev and punch in your username and you’ll find out where your remove comments are. But that’s not necessarily satisfying to somebody who has a Facebook account or maybe somebody who doesn’t even use social media, what’s the answer for them? But if you do use social media, you know, can think back on maybe some of your old posts and try to view that content when you’re logged out. If it’s a public forum, if it’s a private forum, it’s harder to figure out. You need to know somebody else who’s in that group to really check if it’s still there. And in terms of advocacy, I mean, I think some young people are already aware that this does happen.

I don’t think that makes it okay because it still happens so often that it seems clear to me that most people aren’t aware that it occurs or they don’t know how often it occurs. And I do think that’s harmful to discourse, just like you has implications on our free speech. And I understand that our free speech is written as a protection from government, but there are historic figures who express concern over infringements on free speech building up in the populist first. So it’s not that necessarily that the government comes down on your speech, it might be something that builds up and gets popular support, which I think we’re seeing today, and I have some suspicion that the way social media works with this secretive content moderation can be contributing to that and is sort of leaking into the real world where all of a sudden people think it’s okay to attend what is otherwise a peaceful speaking event and attempt to shout them down and make it so that other people can’t hear them. And while that may be legal because they’re not committing violence, that does go against the principles of free speech. You’re using this what’s called a heckler’s veto to stop someone from speaking and to stop their willing audience from hearing their message. And that’s nothing civil about that.

Johnny Sanders (01:02:41):

I think kind of adding to this, when you’re talking about hecklers, this immediately came in my mind. I don’t know who this lady is, she’s a comedian. I just saw a clip on Twitter the other day and I don’t even remember the exact quote of it, but was doing standup comedy and said something that was offensive to someone in the crowd for some trans type of ideology. Again, I don’t even necessarily remember what it was, and I’m not necessarily advocating for what she said, but it was a standup comedy routine. That’s kind of what you sign up for as for jokes that can be a little off-putting kind of what the art is. And anyways, there was a heckler there that was really shouting back at her and going back into just speaking truth and especially in a real live in person situation, if that individual that was heckling probably thought she was going to get a lot of support from the rest of the crowd because that’s what you do, you got to stand up for those rights.

But she didn’t that the crowd actually thought the joke was kind of funny and it wasn’t done super distastefully. So she got, again, that feedback right there in real world time that no other people like it is okay to say these things. I don’t have to play by these rules, but had that comedian taken some of this self-censorship and just did a routine and didn’t ever go there, then that would just feel even more that we can’t talk about these things. It’s super taboo and I think it’s important whether it’s online or offline to speak truth. And this is in your spot where you just have all this technical knowledge and able to see things through that lens and other people don’t necessarily want to hear it. Eventually truth gets out. It may not be the way that we want it to look like or that we envisioned, but truth has value just because it’s true. So whether you’re communicating that on an online form or just to your friends speak truth, and I think you’ve lined out very well and very clearly that this shadow banning is not a helpful way to conduct online discourse. So talk about it. I would say to people that are online that are here in this like, oh, I never even heard about it. Talk about it speak truth, and we don’t necessarily have to have the right answers of where it goes, but speaking truth does matter in ways that you might not even see.

Robert Hawkins (01:05:27):

I completely agree, and I like that answer so much better. My goal with this has always been to start conversations to give people back their words, to let more conversations happen. And I would like people, I would love, well, I would love to see people talk about whether or not this is a right thing to do. I’ll even put that out there, maybe it’s the right thing to do. Now, I’ve had this conversation a lot of times online with moderators. I am willing to have more of those conversations on video on a recorded line with anybody who’s willing. This is not something that I have seen happen anywhere, I’ll say with the exception of brief news items about shadow bands regarding Twitter, and I don’t want to take away from that. That was a big deal. It’s important what Elon Musk did to openly share some hard things about a company that he just bought.

But even in academia, there is research into content moderation and Reddit, many, many papers, and I have, I’ve been unable to find any assessment of whether or not this shadow removal stuff is ineffective mechanism for discourse. And in fact, there’s sort of a manual on how to, I forget the name, the title of the book, but it’s something like how to run a successful online community in which it recommends this practice. It recommends not notifying people or sending an error, putting an error message up instead of letting ’em know that they’re not able to post for such and such a reason. And this was published by professors from like m, MIT and Yale. I mean,

Johnny Sanders (01:07:41):

Yeah, that is, again, that kind of shows some of the, there’s something deeper than just a disagreement. That’s why I love the fact that you got to lay down that gauntlet like, Hey, let’s talk about it. You, you’re willing to be wrong, but let’s talk about it. And things such as that. Higher ups, mit, Yale, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter. I mean, these are big companies. Big institutions. Let’s let truth win out. Let’s talk about it. I could be wrong. Maybe Robert had no idea what he was talking about and I’m wrong for having him on the show. Okay, let’s talk about it. That that’s the answer there it is talking it out, not, let me just put this hammer down and suppress your ability to talk. So even if they are correct, even if we give them that benefit of the doubt that no shadow banning is a good practice, it really helps to the bots down or whatever, it makes it a better practice. You’re still wrong by not really having open discussions about this. Yeah, I don’t really see an out there to where they are. They’re the good guys, at least in the way that they’re portraying things. Anyways,

Robert Hawkins (01:09:05):

That’s how I feel. And I have a little bit of sympathy for the position that we find ourselves in because there’s many words for this practice. By the way, bozo filter is another common one, but it also goes by selective and visibility, visibility filtering. We’ve heard, and there’s just so many different words that are used internally to describe this same thing, the lack of notification of some that you broke a rule and your content’s been moderated, but it seemed to start up really at the beginnings of the internet. There’s this post by Jeff Atwood who is a founder of Stack Overflow, which is like a programming question and answer website. It’s really useful if you’re, you’re a programmer can type in some error message and Google, and somebody’s probably already asked that question and answered it on this website. Anyway, Jeff wrote a post in, it was over 10 years ago about hell banning, which was the word he understood for this practice and kind of making the point that people have been reinventing this practice over and over since the beginning of the internet.

And bozo filter is one that was common for WordPress sites because there was a plugin called BB Press that allows people to comment on your WordPress site. And I guess they had some button in there where you could mark somebody as a bozo so that they could continue to comment on your site, but they wouldn’t know that was removed. So the sympathy I mentioned for the platforms today is maybe misplaced. Happy to have you disagree with me on that, but it did not not just come from them, it came from us. And so I also think the answer to this has to come from us because if we just move on from Reddit for example, or Facebook or Twitter onto the next ones without understanding the issues that sort of let them become so big, well, we’re going to have the same problem at the next one and it’s going to be even bigger.

Johnny Sanders (01:11:52):

That that’s a really good point that in some psychological concepts, it reminds me of how anxiety works. That anxiety oftentimes is very fueled by avoidance. So I don’t want to deal with the presentation that I have at school, so I say that I’m sick so I don’t have to do the presentation. And since I stayed home from school, didn’t do the presentation, I feel better. That’s all fine and good, but guess what? I still have to give the presentation so it doesn’t go away because I didn’t deal with the root cause. I just made myself superficially feel better in the moment. And I think to your point, yeah, we move on from Reddit, we create this other side, great, but is it going to have the same problems? We don’t want to have real superficial answers. And I think this goes even deeper than what we’re talking about, that there’s this concept of external and internal locus of control.

That external, I am basically wanting the whole world around me to change and make things better for me. And that’s a very passive mindset. Let let’s Robert do all the hard work here. So he’s got the tech skills. I’m just going to take a back seat here when we all play a role, even if it’s just that small role with how we conduct ourselves in our own little communities, but we need to fill that empowerment and just that assertiveness to control what we can and, and not wait for Trump or for any politician to come in and save the day because yeah, we’re the issue here, we’re the culture. So what can we do to help fix the culture? I think that’s a really good point, that frustration that we might have with some of the tech people while not necessarily inaccurate, that may not be the full root cause. And I would add this too with on the Christianity side, that we would say that’s really just the concept of sin itself too, just in the culture that we’re imperfect beings and we do dumb things and those dumb things that we do don’t just affect ourselves. It can affect the whole culture. So I think that’s a really, really good point.

Robert Hawkins (01:14:23):

That’s great. So glad you brought that up because I’ve read a little bit of the Bible, but I know that the stories in there can be so deep in such, in so few words. And yeah, I think what you say is true that we are each flawed and that can manifest itself. It does manifests itself in the real world every day. And sometimes we just hit these points in society where these problems bubble up and the solution to them is not going to come from, like you say, looking to someone else. It comes from each of us and not just technologists. Yeah, really everyone plays a role is really important

Johnny Sanders (01:15:21):

And really,

Robert Hawkins (01:15:22):

So thanks so much for having me on.

Johnny Sanders (01:15:23):

Goes great with, yeah, absolutely. And I think that just ties together a really nice bow there at the end that that’s why I’m doing the show, is to be engaged. That’s the whole name, Faithfully engaged and not sit back and let these experts come in and just fix everything for you. That’s just not how life works. You can be involved. So Robert, do you have any other kind of lasting thoughts or things that you want to give the audience before we wrap it up,

Robert Hawkins (01:16:02):

Lemme look at my notes here. I think we hit all the topics that I really wanted to talk about. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your show. You, you’ve had some really interesting guests and I love how open you’ve been about your experience. I know that you lost your job over your beliefs about taking the vaccine and, but that you were also able to connect with some counselors who had similar concerns as you about the gender affirmation stuff through social media. And that was also interesting to me to hear about and I checked out the books on your book list. I mentioned that I read the one by Fadi Bach, and I also started reading the one by Thomas Sowell and I had no idea who that was, but that’s really eyeopening and he is, he’s such a smart guy. So I hope more people listen to your show and get turned on to that kind of material because I think many of us just haven’t been exposed to it. And it’s just words. You don’t have to agree with it. If you don’t like it, you can put it down. But I feel I’ve gotten a lot out of just listening to the guests on your show and checking out that material. So thank you.

Johnny Sanders (01:17:46):

Well, thank you again, Robert. I was so excited to have this conversation. We’ve kind of exchanged some emails and messages for a while. Just again, this is perfect for some of the rebranding here of Faithfully engaged of, I’ve loved talking to other like-minded counselors and I’m going to continue to do so. But I like this expansion because there’s so many other things going on in lots. So Robert’s doing great work. Do you want to tell ’em real quick, I’ll link this down below, but do you want to tell ’em real quick where they can find you at?

Robert Hawkins (01:18:19):

Yeah, sure. So I have a sub stack now that’s called removed sub I’m also on Twitter, which you can just use the link. It’s some jumbled, jumbled letters of my first initial and last name. And then if you have a Reddit account, go to, R E V E D D I and put in your username and maybe there’s something in there that you didn’t know about and that will lead you to have a better conversations online. That’s really my goal is to help people have better conversations, more informed conversations, both on and offline.

Johnny Sanders (01:19:03):

Perfect. Well, yeah, I’ll make sure to put all those links down there so you can find Robert. And thanks again for being on the show and definitely encourage everybody listening to just take to heart what the message of this is, of just being truthful, realizing that these tech things, they can happen. But don’t let that silence you. These conversations do matter even with people you disagree with. So great work, Robert and everyone watching. I hope you have a great rest of your week and we’ll catch you on the next episode.

Robert Hawkins (01:19:41):

Thanks Johnny.