I 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.

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

28 replies on “We Got Facebook Censored”

    1. You’re a disease! Facebook is my best friend; always there for me; always interested in what I think; how my day went; what I like, and don’t like! I will not listen to you talking about my best friend like that!

    1. “I think it was the penis that pushed them over the edge”, now, there’s a sentence you don’t see nearly enough in everyday conversation. 🙂

  1. Censorship is the downside of sites like Facebook. As for ‘art nudity being OK’…Facebook may say that a nude figure painting, for example, is OK… but I’ve known my fair share of artists who have been censored by Facebook over images like that as well. I will say this though… Myspace, back in the day, was far worse that Facebook as far as censorship is concerned.

    1. But is it sort of a cop-out to say “Censorship is the downside of sites like Facebook”? Shouldn’t there be a way for a site like Facebook to not censor, or at least censor a whole lot less? (Or maybe I just want Facebook to be something it’s not…?)

      1. I don’t think they can “not censor” at all because there are issues about privacy, legalities and an ongoing problem they have with spam appearing in News Feeds that come into play, but it would be great if they had a human being reviewing and making timely and commonsense decisions about images flagged by the automated system.

        1. You’re right, and I suppose I’m all for censoring when it comes to violent hate speech (which then, of course, the line gets blurry. But anyway.).

          1. As a direct challenge to Facebook’s censorship I am starting a new social media site called ‘Buttcrack’. You will soon be able to find all your personal and friend information; work info; art & entertainment news; everything you want uncensored, all in Buttcrack. Except for hate speech it will be a NO censorship media site. I really think the time is right for Buttcrack to explode.

      2. Facebook is the Disneyland of the internet. It will always strive for a G rating. As a challenge to Facebook I am starting a new social media site called ‘Buttcrack’. Instead of Facebook’s censorship, you will be able to soon find all your uncensored personal information, as well as friends, work, art & entertainment, all in Buttcrack.

  2. I’ll wager that there is a lot of “sideboob”, and not just photos but postings of Venus standing in a clamshell that is allowed. Hyperallergic just has to learn to turn the cheek (no, the other one).

  3. Was it really censored for being nudity, or for being suspected as kiddie porn? It’s certainly sexualized – not ‘just’ naked – and the link says something about “adolescent vulnerability.” Adolescent girls being vulnerable by having their panties pulled down… that really IS offensive. No?

      1. Daria, please read the original interview. The image comes from a project called “Women as Objects,” which culls sexist images from other sources, and there’s no indication/proof/reason to believe it’s a photo of a vulnerable, defenseless adolescent girl having her panties pulled down.

        1. Oversized soft toys, yes, they scream “objectified adult woman”, don’t they?Everyone can see it’s not a child because everyone knows that soft toys don’t console and comfort children, everyone knows that emergency services personnel only give soft toys to traumatised children for the photo opportunities. GMAB.

  4. just shows that informed and enlightened dont need Suck book aka Fix me a Graph date book……..we have out own artistic sensibilities and radar….how would they go with Courbets L’Origine du monde..?

  5. A few years ago something similar happened to the George Glazer Gallery, so I can tell you it’s not just photography that can be blocked. I posted an 18th-century black-and-white engraving of “Venus Attired by the Graces” after the Baroque master Guido Reni to the gallery’s Facebook page, and after a few hours it disappeared. When I tried again, it wouldn’t load. Wondering if somehow the bare breasts were the problem, I gave them all bright red bathing suits in Photoshop, and uploaded the revised version to Facebook and indeed, that version was allowed. That’s good that Facebook now at least sends you a notice to let you know that the image was in fact pulled from the site and why, but the automatic locking of profiles connected with a flagged image seems to go overboard.

    Here’s the original page that was censored: http://www.georgeglazer.com/prints/aanda/art-pre20/venusreni.html and here’s the Facebook-approved version, which I call “Guidos in Speedos”: http://www.georgeglazer.com/prints/aanda/art-pre20/images/venusfb.jpg

  6. One person’s bare backside is another persons subway poster. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

  7. WNYC’s Radio Rookies have been producing a series on “slut-shaming” – the use by teens of explicit photos and videos on social networking sites to embarrass, shame, and/or humiliate other teens. BBC World Service covered the story yesterday (1/23/13) reporting that Facebook had refused to respond to requests to remove compromising images of teens. Perhaps there is a degree of “damned-if-we-do/damned-if-we-don’t” in this story of audiences who are vulnerable versus those who are not.

  8. Maybe I’m the only one, but I’m somewhat sympathetic to Facebook here. The fact is, they probably have to go through thousands of potentially offending photos every day, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to read artist statements and try to divine a poster’s motivation to make a more accurate classification. They have to quickly draw the line somewhere, and the nature of the beast is that it’s going to be incredibly arbitrary. Even art critics and historians grapple with the question of what is art and what is porn (think Betty Thompkins Fuck Paintings or Jeff Koons Made in Heaven series). It’s not surprising that a corporate behemoth like FB is going to err on the side of caution.

  9. After ‘violating’ the Facebook Guidelines, I did repost an explicit image (which actually was a ‘classic’ election poster in the Netherlands for the former Pacifist Socialist Party in the ’70s) with a furious comment against censorship, and it’s still on…..

  10. I suspect the photos are analyzed by a “fuzzy logic” program, not real people. Give the program its parameters, and sometimes it will make what seems like a ridiculous “decision.”

  11. On the topic of Facebook’s extreme sensitivity to ads, they banned this sexy viral ad:

    YouTube video

    Do you think they are going too far? Afterall, 100K people saw it in a couple of weeks and generally seemed to have liked it or at least be tolerant of it.

    I’m wondering what you think…

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