Levels of order in online community: The art of banning users

I was listening to Community Signal (available wherever fine podcasts are sold) and Patrick O’Keefe’s conversation with famed criminologist George Kelling about applying the Broken Windows theory to community management. They discussed how behavioral demonstrations and “levels of order” can maintain a cohesive, orderly group, whether online or off. While the theory is somewhat controversial, I’m fascinated by the idea of “levels of order” and thought I would spend some time looking at how various social media platforms set a baseline for acceptable behavior on their sites. To get an idea of how far users can push a platform’s rules, I thought we could look at extreme examples: Banned users.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ve been banned from a platform or two. However you may or may not have meant to do anything ban-worthy. For instance, I was locked out of Facebook for a time for using my account in too many places at once. Who knew? And there are any number of other fairly innocuous, albeit suspicious, things that can see you canned from a social media platform. If you want to avoid these sorts of issues, it’s important to read the terms of use before using any platform, but even that isn’t a guarantee.


We’ll return to Facebook later, but let’s take a look at some of the salacious items that can get you banned from its daughter-site Instagram–like too much side boob. Model Elle Johnson was temporarily banned from Instagram this summer after she posted a photo of herself scantily clad and bearing a fair amount of skin. While the Insta-famous star has been banned multiple times, she has made her way back to the platform with a stronger following after each event, and she continues to push the limits of what is acceptable on the site.

While a moderate prude might see a reason to ban Johnson’s photos from Instagram, what is less clear is why the company allegedly shadow banned several PetaPixel photographers from January to at least March of 2017. During this period, PetaPixel reports that many of its photographers experienced a large decrease in engagement. After some investigation, it was discovered that the photographers’ accounts had been shadow banned–their content hidden from the public but left visible to the user and their followers. According to a response from Instagram, the shadow bans were caused by a bug with hashtags, but the company’s reaction left some of the banned users feeling that the company was purposefully interfering with the livelihoods of independent photographers.


On Twitter lately, we’ve seen a much more concerted effort to control more than users’ selfies. The site has most notably suspended the accounts of Martin Shkreli and Milo Yiannopoulos for inciting violence. First banned was Yiannopoulos in 2016 after he urged his Twitter followers to harass actress Leslie Jones, who subsequently quit Twitter. This was followed a few months later by bans of multiple “alt-right” accounts and the introduction of controls that let users “mute” users and phrases to keep them from appearing in their personal feeds. As for Shkreli, also known as “pharmabro,” he was suspended for a time for harassing female journalists, but he was permanently banned in May 2017 after it was found that he had leaked previously-unreleased, copyrighted music lyrics.

In fact, dealing with copyright violations has been a running theme with Twitter. Recently, Viacom, which owns BET, allegedly raised alarms about video clips of the BET Awards shared by culture magazine The Faderon Twitter–though it should be noted that Twitter does not comment on account suspensions and would not confirm or deny the reasoning behind the ban. However, likely as a result of sharing footage of the awards program, The Fader and other music-related publications were temporarily banned from the social media site. Outraged, fans of the publications voiced their opposition by trending the #FreeFader hashtag in response to the suspensions.


While Twitter has limited itself to controlling hate speech and copyrighted content, Facebook has gone one–or maybe several–steps further by developing tools that would allow governments like China to screen and censor any content shared on the social network. While this is seen by some as a move by Facebook to forge a partnership with China and to gain a foothold in the enormous social media market there, if deployed elsewhere the software could prove to be a serious issue for the company.

One case in point may be the mysterious suspension in April 2017 of the Facebook account of Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who has come under fire in the past for criticizing China’s government. According to an official statement from Facebook, automated systems determined that Guo’s account had violated the sites terms. However, the company refused to say exactly how the dissident had violated the rules, only saying that if they were to explain what happened, they would expose proprietary information that would make it easier for users to get around the system’s controls.


Reddit, on the other hand, has been somewhat more transparent in its attempts to limit doxing and other forms of violence in its communities, usually issuing warnings and citing its terms of use before turning off a subreddit or banning users. Because of its emphasis on free speech, Reddit is one of the more tolerant communities on the web–and by this I mean that the site is more tolerant of content, ideas and speech that most people would find offensive. However, the site still has mores and norms that help it to draw a line, and these lines are often reinforced by users themselves.

Gab, the new “ad-free social media platform” (would advertisers touch it?), established community rules despite its staunch dedication to “free speech” and freedom of expression. Though there is a waiting list to join the alt-right platform, it has already banned users for posting content like revenge porn. Even on a social media platform that seems to be dedicated to denigrating outsiders and alternative lifestyles, there are limits to what is acceptable–no matter how obtuse the limits may be.


For some great tips on how to effectively moderate your community and manage your social media reputation, check out these resources from other social mediaand community management experts. Have links to other great resources? Share them in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Levels of order in online community: The art of banning users

  1. Patrick O'Keefe Reply

    Very cool, Luke. I’m glad that the episode of the show provoked these thoughts! Thanks for saying so.

    • lukezimmer Reply

      Absolutely, Patrick! Thank you for all of the great community managers and ideas you highlight on Community Signal. I never miss an episode!

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