Nudity Debate Brewing on Facebook

Published: Jan. 16, 2020 at 9:43 AM EST
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When is a photograph of nude bodies artistic or titillating? A

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 not only our town squares but diaries, magazines, art galleries and protest platforms, gets final say on matters of free speech and self-expression. It's deciding what “community standards” should be for billions of people around the world.

“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.

Tunick says that more recently he’s found his work “shadow-banned” by Instagram, which has become a crucial tool for artists to showcase their work. His post weren't removed but aren't readily visible to users.

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. Based on the letter of the policy, those had to be removed. Malfacini said she joined Facebook around this time and began speaking with midwives, doulas, birthing photographers and others to carve out an exception for images of childbirth even though they show genitalia. Now, the images come with a warning screen; users can click through to see them.

Most of the photos of unclothed children on Facebook are posted innocently by parents sharing vacation photos on the beach or kids in a bath. Sometimes these parents get a warning. Malfacini sometimes speaks to them.

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