A modest group of roughly 20 artists, curators, and activists convened on Monday afternoon at Facebook and Instagram’s New York City office, just off Astor Place. But this gathering was no protest; the group entered through the front doors, filed into a conference room, and joined a roundtable discussion about Instagram’s treatment of artists — and perhaps more critically, their art.
According to Micol Hebron, an activist-educator at Monday’s meeting who has actively campaigned to widen Instagram’s rigid policy on womens’ nipples for years, fellow artist Joann Leah was essential in bringing the roundtable discussion to life. (Leah circulated a petition in 2016, urging Facebook to reconsider its censorship of artwork that features nudity. Once the petition amassed 1,000 signatures, Facebook contacted Leah directly — and the artist developed a rapport with members of Facebook’s policy arm.)
“That doesn’t happen; I thought it was spam,” Leah told Hyperallergic of an introductory email she received in 2017. She has since attended five video-chat meetings with the company’s policy team.
According to Leah, Monday’s roundtable was the result of serious, combined efforts on the part of many activists, artists, and advocates. “A lot of people expressed the need for it to happen so it was just time. I don’t think any one person should be taking credit,” Leah said.
Many of the artists in attendance have been directly affected by Instagram’s current policy on nudity — including Marilyn Minter, Spencer Tunick, and Siddhant Talwar — and the work of several participants has been scrubbed from the platform for violating community standards. (Hebron wrote on Instagram that less than one day before the meeting, the tech company removed images of her nipples from her page.)
Although Instagram is owned by social media behemoth Facebook — and operates out of the company’s New York headquarters — the site has its own code of photo ethics.
In its present form, Instagram’s community standard prohibits nudity.
It continues: “This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”
To Hebron, the policy — and perhaps Facebook’s overall approach to gender — lacks nuance.
“The policies that Facebook enacts are essentially policing the bodies and the identities of the users — and are a particular problem who people who are queer or trans … that is my primary concern from the beginning. How does an algorithm know what someone’s gender is? How does a person know what gender someone is by looking at their nipples?”
Also present at the meeting were members of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a non-profit group that promotes freedom of speech and artistic expression through advocacy, education, and public policy reform.
“The ways in which established (and “establishment”) artists are affected by these policies are very different from how early-career artists are affected, in particular those without access to other avenues for showing their art,” Nora Pelizzari, the coalition’s director of communications, told Hyperallergic by email.
“Artists that are working with the nude, who censor their own works on Instagram in order to meet their community standards, can be deleted with no recourse because of a lack of a proper appeals system,” Tunick told Hyperallergic. “The deletion of an artist’s account is like throwing someone’s address book and portfolio into a fire.”
Within the last few years, Facebook’s PR problems — privacy breaches, hate speech, data dishonesty, and more — have continued to escalate. But according to Hebron, the meeting was set in earnest and did not appear to have veiled PR ambitions.
Participants in the roundtable discussion were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, and accordingly, were not able to post photos with the likeness of any attendee or attribute any statements to anyone in particular. (That said, any visitor to Facebook/Instagram’s office is also required to sign an NDA).
“I wish they had made it a public forum,” Hebron said. “It would have been an incredible opportunity for them … it could have demonstrated a real position of leadership in terms of adopting a public practice model.”
According to Pelizzari, Facebook’s main concern during the meeting appeared to be “safety and scale.” However, she notes that Facebook’s concept of “safety” — however inadvertently — may exclude certain gender non-conforming artists.
“It seemed that Facebook’s idea of safety privileged those who do not want to see particular content, while the artists, especially the LGBTQ+ folks, voiced their concerns for the safety of those posting — to feel welcome, to feel accepted and, by extension, to feel permitted to exist in the world.”
According to Stephanie Otway, a Facebook company spokesperson, Facebook policy does and can change.
“Our policy development process has many stages and takes time,” she told Hyperallergic by email. “While we haven’t committed to any changes yet, one of the most important pieces of our policy development process is speaking to external experts and stakeholders to ensure we have considered as many perspectives as possible. This meeting allowed us to do that, and we hope to have an ongoing dialogue.”
Three hours after Hebron left Facebook’s office, her Instagram — almost poetically — was suspended. She posted a topless selfie outside the building with artist Spencer Tunick, which triggered Facebook’s content moderators. Since Hebron is relatively connected at Instagram, she was able to have her account reinstated that same day. But she acknowledged the appeal process wouldn’t have been so simple for most transgressors.