Visual Culture and Algorithmic Tyranny: Facebook

Let me first acknowledge that as an online culture, as consumers of digital imagery, few of us limit ourselves to a single platform, like Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr. To use a geographic metaphor, most of us travel widely. But nonetheless, it may be worth acknowledging that for some people, virtual spaces like Facebook are places we spend considerable time. I also want to acknowledge that, just as in the physical world, the users of those virtual spaces are both content makers and consumers, and so the ‘culture’ of Facebook is partially formed by its users. But there are also authoritarian aspects of Facebook that are not democratic. There are rules by which one is allowed to enter and participate in the virtual Agora that is Facebook. These rules are imposed by the ‘owners’ of the platform – partly determined by legal limits in the physical world, such as prohibitions against child pornography, partly determined by what the ‘owners’ of Facebook determine to be ‘community norms’, and partly based on what might accords with or enhance the company’s commercial aims.

I’m interested in Facebook’s nudity policy, and so for reference purposes, this is it:

Nudity

People sometimes share content containing nudity for reasons like awareness campaigns or artistic projects. We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of their cultural background or age. In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards.

We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.
(https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards – accessed March 16, 2015 )

As you can see, it’s not straightforward. Nippled breasts are forbidden, unless they are performing the function of feeding a baby, or have been medicalized.  Essentially, normative erotic gazes are taboo. But if you are one of those lucky people who find breastfeeding or scars erotic, Facebook is your erotic wonderland. Of course, the implict message is that no one could ever be so depraved as to be aroused by lactating breasts or surgical scars.

Let me also call your notice to their statement that they allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. However, recent cases of users being banned by Facebook beg to differ. Below are just a small selection of banned art:

As you can see, none of these pictures are pornography. Each might, undeniably, have erotic value for some, but if you tried to sell any of them to someone wishing to buy pornography, they would reject them as not fit for purpose. But they were all rejected by Facebook as being in violation of their policy.

Yes, Facebook does allow appeals but it is – I would argue – deliberately hard to make an appeal. When an appeal is lodged, like the one championed by the ACLU and the material is reinstated, this is the response you get:

We apologize for this error. Unfortunately, with more than a billion users and the hundreds of thousands of reports we process each week, we occasionally make a mistake. We hope that we’ve rectified the mistake to your satisfaction.
(https://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/naked-statue-reveals-one-thing-facebook-censorship, accessed 16 March, 2015)

A Guardian article investigated how Facebook determines the status of an image and found that at least some of it was seen by human eyes, for instance: “a disgruntled employee of Odesk, Amine Derkaoui, a 21-year-old Moroccan who told Gawker that he was paid $1 per hour to trawl through the reports and determine whether they should be removed from the site or not.” But I suspect at least some of the work is being done by image recognition software.

My guess that having the ACLU weigh in on your side helps get you a response. But in truth, most people don’t bother appealing. And, more insidiously, most people simply self-censor so as not to run afoul of Facebook’s policies:  as a piece of satire, photographer Peter Kaaden prepared a set of sanitized photographs of art at the Louvre, so visitors could post photos of their experience without risking banning.

What I’d like to argue is that, by determining them to be beyond the pale of Facebook, it is Facebook that begins to determine what pornography is. This subtly, implicitly but significantly shapes our visual cultural landscape overall.

You might think this is ridiculous, but consider how visual culture has evolved in the past. Consider how complex and debated the subject of what constitutes pornography vs art. Consider that if all nipples, crotches and penises are taboo in that community, images containing this are being indiscriminately banned, and users are routinely making decisions about what to post based on Facebook’s blunt criteria, then it is actively evolving a new definition of pornography – with no context, no conceptual underpinnings, no consideration of how the image of the human form plays into our visual culture. Now consider how many hours a week you are exposed to this environment and how it might start to change your visual enculturation.

We have a problem here. Our social norms are being determined by algorithims and underpaid 21-year olds. 30 years ago, feminists complained that visual culture was dominated by the male gaze. This was undeniably true and deeply problematic. But damn, I think it might be about to get a lot worse.

 

2 Thoughts on “Visual Culture and Algorithmic Tyranny: Facebook

  1. Of course, first you need to be reported to Facebook, so, what it really does is make you scrutinize your ‘friends’ and limit them to people who have the same values you do. I regularly post images that others have been censored for with nary a peep from Facebook, because I have long ago cut myself off from anyone who would be offended and report me. So, for individuals, it isn’t that big a deal. For people reaching broadly with a page or business, though, it is a consideration. Assuming, of course, you care if you get booted off Facebook.

  2. MM, I expect it to get worse. We are going to have a time of needing to embrace “decency”, so to avoid the hassle, people will (uneasily) increase the self-censoring, probably at thrice the rate they would normally.

    What is happening is that we are leaving broader communities of discourse and going off into smaller corners. I am not even on FB–only a fraction of any of my posts would be allowed. All it would take is a link back to my main Tumblr before I got a stern digital warning.

    The underpaid and unpaid are going to be the arbiters of what is artistic, has merit and so on. If they are not firmly of the mind that all of the pics you posted in your example are not dirty, then they and their holy algorithm will have a grand ol’ time.

    Many would insist that if one wants to look at those sort of images,then go where it is hosted, not a place for “friends and family” to share “life events”, as FB models itself.

    We are not too far from our Puritan roots. (If you have had time to read up on the dust-up over at Reddit abut censorship, you will get my drift.)

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