SAN FRANCISCO — When is a photograph of nude bodies artistic or titillating? A woman’s exposed nipple a political statement or erotica?
A video of childbirth might show genitalia. Should what someone considers a celebration of life be censored?
In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declined to define what constitutes obscenity but famously added, “I know it when I see it.”
In the 21st century, does Facebook?
The social media behemoth is in a well-publicized struggle to address hate speech, extremism, abuse and misinformation on its services — which together serve nearly 3 billion people worldwide.
At the same time, it’s been retooling its policies on nudity. It’s tweaking its original heavy-handed policies to account for modern nuances around gender identity, political speech and self-expression, employing thousands of people and quickly evolving artificial intelligence for the task.
But some of its users — including activists, sex therapists, abuse survivors, artists and sex educators — say policies at Facebook and its Instagram service are still too vague and unevenly enforced. They say their work is being unfairly censored, condemning them to “Facebook jail” with no warning and little, if any recourse.
And it’s no small matter for them. Artists can be suddenly left without their audience, businesses without access to their customers and vulnerable people without a support network. And it means that a company in Silicon Valley, whose online platforms have become our town squares, diaries, art galleries and protest platforms, often gets final say on matters of free speech and self-expression.
“Instagram really is the magazine of the world right now. And if artists are being censored on Instagram it’s really dangerous for freedom of speech and openness when it comes to the body and art,” said Spencer Tunick, a photographer known internationally for his shoots assembling masses of nude people.
Of course, there’s near-universal agreement that child exploitation and nonconsensual images don’t belong on social networks. Pornography probably doesn’t either.
Facebook’s monitoring 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 deciding when a nipple is art, porn or protest gets murky even when humans are doing the deciding. Teaching AI software about human sexual desire is a whole other ballgame.
From its start as a college photo directory and social network, Facebook banned nudity. Over the years, as Facebook’s audience grew bigger and more diverse, the ban loosened. The company instituted exceptions for breastfeeding women, for images of post-mastectomy scars. Birthing videos are now allowed, as are photos of post gender reassignment surgery.
“We had this policy that said no genitals on the platform,” said Kim Malfacini, the Facebook product policy manager who oversees how the company’s community standards are developed. “Until two years ago there were no exceptions to that.”
But the reviewers began seeing photos and videos women shared about their childbirth, she said. Facebook carved out an exception for images of childbirth even though they show genitalia. Now, the images come with a warning screen.
Even with carefully thought-out policies, enforcement can feel arbitrary and the consequences, lasting.
Dawn Robertson started her women-empowerment campaign, “Grab Them by the Ballot,” before the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. She wanted to inspire women to vote, especially in light of the MeToo movement and growing restrictions on abortion. She organized women to pose nude, covered only by strategically placed ballots, props and hashtags.
Then, she posted them on Facebook and Instagram. Suddenly, the campaign took off, though much of the attention was from right-wing publications such as Breitbart, Robertson said.
“All of a sudden, it was just insane, the negative feedback we got,” she said. “Facebook banned my personal account.”
She said she got no warning, or reason why she was banned, though she figured it was for nudity. That is even though Facebook allows nudity in some cases, including for political activism.
Artists have staged protests and pleaded with Facebook. Some have found other platforms to show their work, but they say the company’s sheer dominance in online communications makes it difficult to have the same reach.
“What we are trying to do is open the gate somewhat,” said Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship, which has asked Facebook to reconsider its ban on photographic nudity. “The human body is not this horrible, scary, traumatizing thing. It’s a beautiful thing.”
But beauty has been historically a tricky thing to define. Which means Facebook’s stance on nudity will likely continue to shift.
“No policy is set in stone,” Malfacini said. “On any given policy, we are in some process of revisiting some part of it.”
Follow Barbara Ortutay on Twitter at twitter.com/BarbaraOrtutay
Barbara Ortutay, The Associated Press