Does the naked body belong on Facebook? It’s complicated

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – When is a photograph of naked bodies artistic or sparkling? A woman has exposed nipple to a political statement or erotic?

A video of the birth could show genitals. Should it be censored what someone thinks is a celebration of life?

In 1964, the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in a case about obscene material that he could tell the difference when he saw it.

Can Facebook in the 21st Century?

The social media giant is in a high profile battle against hate speech, extremism, abuse and misinformation about its services, which together serve nearly 3 billion people worldwide.

At the same time, it has revised its guidelines for nudity. It’s about tweaking its original strict guidelines to accommodate modern nuances in gender identity, political language and self-expression, employing thousands of people, and rapidly developing artificial intelligence for this task.

However, some of its users – including activists, sex therapists, abuse survivors, artists, and sex educators – say that the guidelines on Facebook and its Instagram app are still too vague and uneven. They say that their work is wrongly censored and without warning and with little or no recourse, they are sentenced to the “Facebook prison”.

And it’s no small thing for them. Artists can suddenly be left without an audience, companies without access to their customers, and vulnerable people without a support network. And it means that a company in Silicon Vallé, made up of online platforms, has not only become our places, but also diaries, magazines, art galleries and protest platforms. It is the decision which “community standards” should apply to billions of people around the world.

“Instagram is really the magazine of the world right now. And when artists are censored on Instagram, it’s really dangerous for speech and openness about body and art, ”said Spencer Tunick, a photographer known internationally for his filming, which gathers crowds of naked people.

Tunick says that he has recently found Instagram’s work to be “shadowy”, which has become a crucial tool for artists to showcase their work. His post has not been removed, but is not immediately visible to users.

There is, of course, almost universal agreement that child exploitation and non-consensual images do not belong in social networks. Pornography probably isn’t either.

Facebook’s surveillance systems do a better job with nudity than with hate speech, extremism and misinformation. After all, a butt is a butt and a nipple is a nipple. But the decision of when a nipple is art, porn, or protest becomes cloudy, even if people make the decision. Teaching AI software about human sexual desire is a completely different ball game.

From the beginning, as a college photo directory and social network, Facebook banned nudity. The ban eased over the years as the Facebook audience grew and became more diverse. The company has introduced exceptions for breastfeeding women for pictures of post-mastectomy scars. Childbirth videos are now allowed, as are photos of post-gender surgery.

“We had this policy, which said no genitals on the platform,” said Kim Malfacini, Facebook’s product policy manager, who oversees the development of the company’s community standards. “There were no exceptions until two years ago.”

But the reviewers started seeing photos and videos that women shared about their birth, she said. Due to the letter from the police, these had to be removed. Malfacini said that she started joining Facebook at this time and started talking to midwives, doulas, birth photographers and others to make an exception for pictures of births, even though they have genitals. Now the images come with a warning screen that users can click if necessary.

Most photos of naked children on Facebook are innocently posted by parents who share vacation photos on the beach or children in a bathroom. Sometimes these parents get a warning. Malfacini sometimes speaks to them.

“They have no idea that these photos could be misused,” she said.

With childish nudity, Facebook is more conservative. Girls older than 3 years must not be topless. Guys can.

Facebook may be so conservative in defining the line that there are no gray areas, as some bars ask someone looking for ID under 40. For parents of girls, however, this can be sexist. Should Facebook then ban all photos of children without a shirt? Up to what age? How is it checked when the children turn 18?

“It’s a challenge,” said Malfacini.

Even with carefully thought-out guidelines, enforcement can feel arbitrary and the consequences may last.

Dawn Robertson launched her “Grab Them by the Ballot” campaign to promote women before the 2018 midterm elections in the United States. She wanted to inspire women to vote, especially given the MeToo movement and increasing abortion restrictions. She organized nude women who were only covered by strategically placed ballot papers, props and hashtags.

The photos not only stand out because the women are naked, but because we are still not used to seeing pictures of faulty, untouched bodies. These are women with wrinkles and fat and tattoos and untouched skin, a wheelchair here, pregnant belly there – photos that are not meant to attract our eyes or to sell a product, but to resist.

Then she posted it on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign suddenly picked up steam, although much of the attention from right-wing publications like Breitbart, Robertson said.

“Suddenly it was just crazy what negative feedback we got,” she said. “Facebook blocked my personal account.”

Robertson said her ban meant that she could not delete the racist and sexist comments posted on her group’s page. She received no warning or reason why she was banned, even though she suspected it was nudity. That is, although Facebook allows nudity in some cases, it is also for political activism.

Other services deal with the problem in their own way – Twitter is generally more in circulation and Tumblr has recently banned adult content – but none has the weight and size of the Facebook service family.

Lori Handler, who works as a sex and happiness trainer, was in Facebook prison for the first time two years ago when she posted a photo of someone doing yoga naked on her page. She was unable to comment or send private messages.

“I have four business pages and one personal page,” she said. “And if something goes wrong and I can’t post anything, I’m unemployed for a month.”

Artists have staged protests and pleaded with Facebook. Some have found other platforms to show their work, but they say that the company’s sheer dominance in online communication makes it difficult to achieve the same reach.

“What we’re trying to do is open the gate a bit,” said Svetlana Mintcheva, program director at the National Coalition Against Censorship, which Facebook asked to rethink its ban on photographic nudity. “The human body is not this terrible, scary, traumatizing thing. It’s a nice thing. “

But historically, beauty has been a difficult thing to define. That means Facebook’s attitude to nudity is likely to change further.

“No policy is set in stone,” said Malfacini. “With regard to a particular policy, we are rethinking part of it.”


Follow Barbara Ortutay on Twitter at


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