We Got Facebook Censored

katedurbin_screenshotI suppose it was only a matter of time, but yesterday, it finally happened: Hyperallergic was Facebook censored.

The saga unfolded in the office on Monday morning. Kim, our marketing assistant, tried to log into Facebook and found, curiously, that her account was locked. I tried to log on and found the same thing. Same with Kyle, my co-editor, and then Veken, our publisher, told us that, funny, he thought it had just been him! The same thing had obviously happened to Hrag.

As it turns out, Facebook, being the responsible entity that it is, temporarily barred access to all of the personal accounts associated with the Hyperallergic page, all because of one article. To get back into our accounts, we had to look at pictures of our Facebook friends and identify them. Some of the people Facebook chose for me are, at best, acquaintances — one person I’ve only met once face-to-face. Most of the pictures were old and obscure, images I had never seen before. What my ability to identify people I barely know in their old personal photos has to do with an article on Hyperallergic remains a mystery to me.

An image from Kate Durbin’s “Women as Objects” project, and likely the one that offended the Facebook censors
An image from Kate Durbin’s “Women as Objects” project, and likely the one that offended the Facebook censors

The article in question is part one of Alicia Eler’s fascinating interview with artist Kate Durbin. Scrolling through to figure out what might have offended Facebook’s delicate sensibilities, I came upon the last image — a picture of a woman’s exposed butt, her underwear hanging down and a large stuffed rabbit in her hand. And sure enough, it’s there in Facebook’s content guidelines, under “Abuse Standard Violations”: “Naked ‘private parts’ including female nipple bulges and naked butt cracks; male nipples are ok.” (I added the image at left here, so Facebook censors, if you’re reading this: it’s art.)

In addition to being mildly surprised that butts qualify as “private parts,” I am hardly the first person to point out that there’s a double standard here. But there are a million discrepancies and ironies and double standards in Facebook’s censorship rules, not the least among them the fact that a few points below the aforementioned line on naked “private parts” is a another one that says, “Art nudity ok.”

Well, that’s vague — which in theory is nice, because it provides a lot of leeway. (This Photoshopped picture of my ex-boyfriend’s face on the body of a naked child is art!) Except in reality, Facebook defines art quite narrowly as drawing, painting, and sculpture. From an Art Newspaper article: “Facebook apologised, and although it routinely removes naked photos of ‘actual’ people, it allows the posting of drawings, paintings and sculptures of nudes.” Note the very clever word choices there: “naked” for snapshots of “real” people; “nude” for masterpieces depicting imaginary, pristine people who presumably don’t have any body hair. Great! Facebook has set art criticism back at least half a century, and now we can re-debate the question of whether photography is art. At least we’ll finally have something worthwhile to talk about!

Of course Facebook also has an unfortunate history of failing to adhere to its own old-fashioned rules and censoring everything from Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” on individual profiles to Gerhard Richter’s “Ema,” on the page of the Centre Pompidou. (She must be an “actual” person.) I take this as an indication that we (and Kate Durbin) are in good company.

A suggestion: maybe the people employed as censors at Facebook should be required to take art history classes. In the meantime, we’re all stuck living by Facebook’s Community Standards, which read like a hilarious cop-out: “We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.” “Aspire to respect people right”? It’s no wonder teenagers prefer Tumblr.

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