If you visited one of these five art institutions in Manhattan yesterday, June 15, you may have walked away with a flyer and a black sticker labeled “Don’t Delete Art.” Between 11am and 3:30pm, a group of four organizers leafletted at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Parsons School of Design, the Magnum Foundation, the New Museum, and the International Center of Photography Museum, informing passersby of their frustration with art censorship on social media. The daylong action culminated at the Meta headquarters in Noho, where the activists hoped to hand-deliver a manifesto and accompanying petition signed by 2,172 people to a representative of the company, the parent organization of Instagram and Facebook.
The demonstration was led by the organizers of Don’t Delete Art (DDA), a campaign whose manifesto calls on social media companies to reconsider their existing restrictions on artistic content, review alleged violations, and improve their appeals and notifications process.
Over the last few years, artists have called out Instagram’s explicit censorship of their work and the “shadow banning” of their accounts. “Shadow banning” refers to when the platform effectively hides an account by removing it from search results, the explore page, personal feeds, and recommended accounts suggestions. As of December, users can see when their posts are not recommended to non-followers, but Elizabeth Larison explained that additional restrictions can vary on a case-by-case basis. Many of these instances stem from alleged violations of the company’s complicated rules pertaining to depictions of nudity.
“These things are really important to artists who don’t have representation or who live in places where there’s a lot of censorship in general,” Larison told Hyperallergic outside of the New Museum. Larison is one of DDA’s core organizers and serves as director of the Arts and Culture Advocacy Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a nonprofit started by ACLU members in the 1970s that works with activists, librarians, teachers, curators, and other cultural workers to prevent the silencing of artistic and literary works.
Meta did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment for this story.
DDA launched in 2020. In addition to its campaign efforts, the organization, which is funded by NCAC, teaches artists how to post images to avoid getting flagged and how to appeal alleged violations of Instagram’s community guidelines. DDA also features an online gallery of censored work. The organization is currently run by workers at NCAC, Artists at Risk Connection, a PEN America subsidiary that advocates for freedom of expression; and Freemuse, another organization that centers artistic freedom. Three artists also serve as DDA curators: Savannah Spirit, Spencer Tunick, and Emma Shapiro, a Hyperallergic contributor who also serves as the project’s editor-at-large.
These artists attended Thursday’s rally and spoke to Hyperallergic about their long history with censorship on Instagram.
Spirit first encountered the problem around 2014, a few years after Meta bought Instagram in 2012. The artist was posting a pin-up series. Spirit’s account was repeatedly deleted, at one point eliminating her audience of more than 5,000 followers. She thinks she missed out on potential art world exposure and around $10,000 in direct sales. After her pin-up series was flagged, Spirit devised a strategy to skirt the company’s algorithm: She now creates nude photographs patterned with filtered light. The shadows of blinds and lace curtains can trick the algorithm into missing a naked body; it’s a forced censorship measure that Spirit thinks has actually made her art better.
Tunick’s photography often features nude bodies posed in city settings. He captures these images in the early morning. His account has been shadow banned, but Tunick is unable to access the part of the app that tells him his account status.
Shapiro says her account has also been pushed into the “not-recommended” grouping, and the artist has witnessed rounds of her posts being deleted en masse.
“I use my own body in my artwork,” Shapiro told Hyperallergic, adding that it is her primary tool. She thinks Instagram’s limitations might affect her ability to get artist residencies — Shapiro said she is forced to explain to programs that they will not be able to promote her photographs on Instagram and that she won’t be able to publicize the work she created during the residency.
“It’s like it never happened,” Shapiro said of the work she’s created during these programs. “And it really worries me. I worry that that affects their decisions going forward for artists like me.”
The artistic practices of Spirit, Tunick, and Shapiro all share a common motif — nudity. Instagram explicitly allows naked bodies in paintings and sculptures (Meta also allows nudity in “other art”), but the lines blur for photography and artworks that appear too realistic. Nipples have emerged as a particular point of contention: Instagram allows male nipples but bans female nipples generally, although it does allow female nipples in the context of “breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or an act of protest.”
Critics have pointed out these blatantly gendered rules for years. In 2014, artist Micol Hebron created the “Male Nipple Pasty,” a digital sticker Instagram users could place on top of female nipples in their posts. Shapiro, who joined DDA in 2021, launched a conceptually similar initiative in 2017 titled “Exposure Therapy” — a collection of physical stickers displaying photographs of female nipples. Exposure Therapy’s Instagram page (which has been deleted twice) shows the stickers out in the world — stuck to electrical poles and graffitied walls and held up at beaches and restaurant tables. They are often accompanied by another sticker that reads “Nudity is not pornography.”
Works are often flagged by Instagram’s algorithm, a process that is far from impartial. A Guardian investigation published in February found that AI ranks women’s bodies as more sexually suggestive than men’s.
Further complications arise over Meta’s clause against “sexual solicitation.” In a 2022 article for Hyperallergic, Shapiro reported that some artists charged with breaking the “solicitation” rule were moving their content to PornHub and Onlyfans.
“Sex is not the topic of my artwork, I only use a nude body,” Shapiro said during yesterday’s action as she leafletted outside the International Center of Photography, which was quiet on the sunny midweek afternoon. “So I’ve always been very offended that my body gets sexualized without my intent.”
In 2022, Meta’s oversight board — the company’s independent but Meta-funded third party — ruled that the company should overturn two decisions to remove photographs of a transgender person’s bare chest, stating that the rules on female nipples are “extensive and confusing, particularly as they apply to transgender and nonbinary people.” (Meta explained its rules in a response to the board: Allowances vary based on whether an individual underwent a male-to-female or female-to-male transition, whether the person had top surgery, and whether there is scarring over someone’s nipples.) The oversight board also urged changes to the solicitation policy.
DDA’s organizers said that Meta has not published a decision in response to the board’s recommendations, and no public statement appears available online.
The DDA organizers say they used to have an ongoing relationship with Meta, but contact has been limited in recent months. On Thursday, the group arrived at the company’s unmarked Manhattan offices with a banker’s box filled with information about DDA, printouts from the gallery, and the manifesto and petition. The group spoke with security guards outside before Larison and Spirit entered the building’s lobby. They returned five minutes later with the box still in their arms: A staff member told them they would need to reach out to “email@example.com” or mail the materials.
While advocacy efforts for freedom of expression online often center nudity, the consequences of social media censorship and shadow banning extend far beyond the scope of naked bodies and even art. A 2021 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that elsewhere on the internet, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter enforced their rules inconsistently, often avoiding politically sensitive topics and disproportionally censoring content created by non-White communities, especially if that content was created in a different language. Specific instances emerge now and again: An artwork that said “ACAB” and “defunding the police”; posts in India about COVID-19; and voices speaking about political unrest in Colombia and Palestine have allegedly been removed. Meta has dismissed these incidents as “technical issues” related to locations rather than content.
But for Larison, that explanation is a pretext that overlooks technology’s potential.
“Algorithms can do so many detailed things, they can learn so much about us,” Larison said. “There should be more training in algorithms and there needs to be artistic perspectives brought to the content moderation process.” The four organizers emphasized that Thursday’s action was part of a larger ongoing campaign and that the attempted delivery of the box to Meta is merely the beginning.
“This campaign will be continuing,” Larison said. “We need the arts community to join us.”