How Censorship Works on Social Media

By Emma Crameri Emma Crameri has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 31 May 2023

Over the last few years, the level of online censorship has increased dramatically.

Sadly, words like misinformation and fact-checking have become a convenient way to suppress different opinions. If the news only presents a one-sided opinion, then how can science flourish?

As a result, people are moving off these heavily censored platforms to more liberal ones where freedom of speech and critical thinking is embraced.


Censorship has played an important part in history from adding parental controls to keep children safe with classifications of mature themes and concepts, to persuading civilians to do what the government wants them to do and believe.  

People will accept different levels of content and imagery based on their backgrounds, education, religious beliefs and values. Different countries have different rules about what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Facebook and Instagram Censorship

Social media platforms use censorship to block posts in several different ways.

On Instagram, repeat offenders do get warnings like “You could lose access to your account in the future. Your content has been removed for going against our guidelines. Avoid losing access to your account, and the permanent removal of your posts, followers, messages and archive by following our Community Guidelines.” You’ll then be notified of what was removed which you can appeal.

Another warning reads “Your post has been removed. It goes against our Community Guidelines on harmful false information. Our guidelines encourage people to express themselves in a way that’s respectful to everyone. If you think we made a mistake, you can ask us to review our decision”. Surprisingly, the post was a screenshot of a news article from an Australian mainstream media website.

When you flag and report a post it is anonymous. We’re all self-policing each other to some extent.

Recently I was looking at photos on Instagram using the #brisbane hashtag. I started to report and block some dubious videos that were blurred out. Over a week I probably reported 50 accounts – all pointing to the same website that had zero relevance to Brisbane. I wasn’t being paid to moderate these, and it was a huge turn-off. I even stopped using Instagram. At a photography Meetup, the coordinator admitted that she’d seen a huge drop off in followers and most of her friends had left both apps.

When an account is shadow banned, then the owner might find their direct messages do not load. Some people say their account cannot be tagged (or shared) and their views are reduced by 75%. The page may not appear in search unless you type in the entire name correctly. One way to get around this is to add the account to your favourites.

Before you follow an account with several strikes against them, you might be prompted with a message like: “Are you sure you want to follow [bad-account-name]? This account has repeatedly posted false information that was reviewed by independent fact-checkers or went against our policy guidelines.” You can then select ‘Follow’ or ‘Cancel’.

There is the constant threat of being de-platformed. This is where a user is prohibited from sharing their views or being banned from a social media platform or application.

WeChat Censorship in China

Inside China, the best way information can be shared on social media is by using a VPN. Foreigners are usually the ones who can post, as they are able to leave the country if needed.

WeChat is one of the platforms that the Chinese authorities monitor closely. If you post something that they disapprove of your message will be removed and you’ll be warned that “Unable to view this content because it violates regulations”.  

An American I followed on Instagram who was living in lockdown in Shanghai had decided to stop posting as frequently. He said, “I now fear that leaving evidence of my reporting on the situation will affect my safety and well-being. For that reason, I will now delete all of my highlights from the past two weeks and I will no longer be saving stories on my profile”

There is a video based on WeChat clips taken in Shanghai about the lockdown conditions. It is called Voice of April. It has been blocked on WeChat but circulating on Instagram. Apparently, the residents shared the video, got censored, and then they created a new account and repeated the process all day long. Many of the residents are stuck in high-rise buildings unable to work and had to bulk buy groceries with their neighbors. If you posted anything mentioning the city or country, these are hidden.

Strategies for Avoiding Censorship

People have developed different strategies to get around censorship on social media.

  • Code words – One way to get around the automatic filters is by using code words, so people talk about being waxed, juiced or the spicy flu. Other people black out words that will be detected and blocked.
  • Self-censorship – you stop yourself from writing or posting for fear of ban, trolls or backlash. Several people have admitted to me that they have increased their self-censoring (This includes well-respected journalists). They think about what they’d like to post but are afraid of backlash from their followers, family, friends or coworkers. As a result, they don’t end up posting what they would like to.
  • Some are account hopping – they get repeated warnings and can tell they are shadow-banned.  They know in advance that their account will be removed, so they prepare in advance and create similarly named ones. The community share new accounts and can stay one step ahead of the often-biased misinformation police.
  • Take a break – Some users wisely take a break for a little while, so they can ride out the shadow ban with timing. 
  • Tag team – Users know they might get a 24-hour bar, so people will take turns talking about controversial topics.

Point of view journalism plays an important role in showing in real-time what is happening. For example, the live streams coming from the protests in Victoria and Canada were shown to over 50 thousand people.

We will continue to see censorship online change and evolve while Artificial Intelligence and machine learning becomes smarter, and governments crack down on ‘bad behaviour’. 

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