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Censored, from the Archives: a Selective Timeline of Art Censorship on Social Media Platforms

Updated: Dec 18, 2023


Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning black and white photo, The Terror of War, is one of many works of art to be suppressed by major online content providers.

Introduction


Some of the oldest art objects we know of are small, hand-carved stone figurines from the Paleolithic Period which depict women with exaggerated features. As exemplified by the Venus of Willendorf — which art historians believe may have represented an early fertility deity — these statuettes symbolize the awesome power and “divinity” of procreation. In ways both metaphysical and elemental, the Venus of Willendorf and statues like it epitomize our origins as human beings. 


Yet despite its centrality to the human story, art depicting the body has faced relentless censorship, investigation, and inquisition over time. Social media giants have doggedly maintained this historical tradition, scrubbing artwork from their platforms that they deem unsuitable for the internet.


In 2018, Facebook infamously censored the 30,000 year old Venus of Willendorf for its stone-carved “nudity.” Laura Ghianda, an Italian arts activist, had posted a viral picture of the artwork on the social media platform before Facebook censored the image. Ghianda found this action unacceptable, writing that the "war on human culture and modern intellectualism will not be tolerated."


The Museum of Natural History in Vienna, which displays the Venus of Willendorf in its museum as a part of its collection, similarly found Facebook’s action to be an attack on values foundational to the humanities, and expressed outrage over the incident: "An archaeological object, especially such an iconic one, should not be banned from Facebook because of 'nudity,' as no artwork should be," they wrote in a statement.


In response to Facebook’s blatant art censorship, the Museum of Natural History in Vienna and the local tourism board opened an account on OnlyFans — an online content subscription service that is primarily used to access and share sexually explicit images — where the sculpture could be displayed without issue. The “Vienna strips on OnlyFans” advertising campaign was meant to encourage tourists to visit the city and to raise awareness of the censorious standards that art is subjected to on conventional social media platforms.


The prospect of a historic museum’s collection being pushed off of Facebook and onto OnlyFans is alarming. Where do we stand as a society if the artistic forms most reflective of our humanity — freely crafted in times so old history was yet to be written — are today unable to be seen in mainstream public forums?  


Eventually, Facebook issued a public apology and allowed the image to appear on its platforms, a reversal that a spokesperson explained was due to an oversight: while the company prohibits nudity and suppresses suggested nudity, they “make an exception for statues.”


This incident demonstrates the perplexing nature of social media content moderation policies as they relate to artistic expression. While it may appear anomalous, Facebook's censorship reversal is just one of many similar incidents in the history of online art censorship.


Thanks to artist-activists and advocacy groups, social media companies have been pushed to make small changes that allow for greater expressive leeway and increase the transparency of their decision-making. We have gone from famous sculptures and paintings of nude figures being censored uniformly by social media companies to policy changes which now permit paintings, drawings, and sculptures of nude figures to be posted uncensored — though hyperreal works still get mistaken for photographic nudes, which remain prohibited. Bit by bit, we are reclaiming our power to depict and discuss visuals evoking our humanity online.


Yet there is still work to be done: lens-based works that depict or suggest nudity are routinely removed or downranked by social media companies. Given the related ban on female appearing nipples (except in circumstances of protest, nursing, post-op or post-birth moments), this disproportionately affects women and those in the LGBTQ+ communities.


Don’t Delete Art fights for artistic freedom online. As we further the cause of free expression, it is worth noting how the origins of online censorship have shaped our present reality. Alongside the strides and missteps of social networking companies during the early days of social media, the arts community has achieved significant victories that have helped catalyze further openness on the internet. In looking back, we can recognize our strength as we forge ahead to create the future we envision in the Don’t Delete Art Manifesto.


The Origins of Online Censorship


The World Wide Web launched in 1993, bringing with it ceaseless questions about what the rules should be for a new, international forum offering an exchange of ideas and information. The rapid innovations of the internet motivated attempts to make this new tool both secure and functional.


One such attempt at legislating the internet was made in the United States. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, better known as the Communications Decency Act, sought to prohibit the posting of “indecent” or “patently offensive” material on the internet. Much of the Communications Decency Act was struck down as unconstitutional due to free speech promises in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but nevertheless, it also contained specific elements that remained law and have shaped the internet as we know it today. 


Section 230 is one such influential law originally part of the Communications Decency Act. It set an important precedent to safeguard freedom of expression online by protecting the intermediaries which host online speech. Passed in 1996, the law states that internet companies hosting third party user content are not responsible for the content uploaded by their users. Therefore, when harmful speech takes place, Section 230 suggests the speaker should be held responsible, rather than the service that hosts the speech. 


In 1998, the United States enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which criminalized the dissemination of technology that could bypass copyright protections. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has been criticized for restricting the fair use of copyrighted materials, legitimate technological innovation, and other forms of research, learning, and expression.


While the United States government has legislated into effect some of the chilled speech environment that permeates the internet (see also SESTA/FOSTA), much of the censorial environs on the web are constructed and enforced by private companies. This is because such companies have their own First Amendment rights that allow them to determine what content or behaviors are prohibited on their platforms. Whereas the Communications Decency Act attempted to use the power of the United States government to try and bar “indecent” and “offensive” material from the internet, today private companies such as domain providers, hosting services, and social media companies restrict content that the government cannot. 


The availability of both moderated and unmoderated platforms is important since both offer distinct advantages; moderation prioritizes the First Amendment editorial rights of the content provider while a lack of moderation may permit more expressive leeway to users. Moderation makes many platforms accessible, secure, and functional for users, but other times, overbroad restrictions, and the misapplication of policies, can unfairly suppress user speech. Don’t Delete Art encourages companies which host moderated platforms to tailor their restrictions narrowly and apply them fairly, transparently, and consistently.


Selected Historical Examples of Social Media Censorship


In 2011, Facebook suspended the account of a French schoolteacher named Frédéric Durand-Baïssas after he posted a photo of Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) on the social media site. Courbet's painting, which is on display at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, depicts a woman's lower torso, vulva, and legs emerging from bedding which largely covers the figure's breasts. The figure's sprawling position is angled directly at the viewer. Durand-Baïssas sued in French court, arguing that his rights to free speech were compromised since the company did not properly distinguish pornography from art. He remarked: “I was really very angered that a 19th-century French painter, whose work is in the Musée d’Orsay, should be treated as a pornographer. This fight is to defend Courbet, condemned by the Americans, even though we are in France and he’s in the Musée d’Orsay.” Facebook argued French courts had no jurisdiction since the site's terms specify that legal complaints against the company can only be heard in California. Following a lengthy dispute over whether or not Durand-Baïssas had legal standing to sue, Paris' high court ruled that Facebook was wrong to shut down his account in 2018. Shortly thereafter, Facebook settled the suit for an undisclosed sum in 2019. The money was donated to the French street art association Le MUR. 


In 2016, Facebook censored Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg after she posted Nick Ut's Pulitzer-Prize-winning black and white photo The Terror of War. The photograph, taken in Trảng Bàng, South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, shows a young, naked girl running away from a Napalm attack, and infamously depicts the terror that was wrought by U.S. military tactics upon Vietnamese citizens. Facebook initially stated: "While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it's difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.” Kim Phúc, the woman whose childhood trauma was captured in the image, responded: “I'm saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys. I fully support the documentary image taken by Nick Ut as a moment of truth that capture[s] the horror of war and its effects on innocent victims.” Later, Facebook reversed their deletion of the "iconic" photograph after public outrage and negative headlines, stating that the image would be available for sharing and that “[Facebook is] always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe.” 


In 2018, Instagram removed a post from @lgbt_history featuring Zoe Leonard's 1992 text-based artwork I want a president, which was inspired by the author Eileen Myles’ run for president and written at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It reads, in part:


I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.


In response to Instagram’s censorship of the work, Washington, D.C. couple Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer, who run the @lgbt_history account, asked their followers to share the work, filling Instagram with hundreds of posts of Leonard’s poetry. While not all of those posts were deleted, those censored for participating included the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in


Los Angeles, who was in the process of planning a retrospective of Leonard’s work. For three days following public outcry over the blatant art censorship occurring on its platform, Instagram's only comment was that they were “looking into it.” By the end of the week, however, the company announced through a spokesperson that the content “was taken down by mistake, and has since been restored." 


In 2021, Instagram removed a movie poster from its platform which advertised Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers), an Oscar-nominated film from the legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Designed by Javier Jaén, the poster depicts a black-and-white image of a lactating nipple, designed to look like a crying eye. Set against a popping red background with bold pink text in all-caps, the nipple is integral to what is clearly a work of art — a movie poster whose central purpose is to suggest the emotionally complicated nature of motherhood. Jaén remarked:


This is probably the first image I saw when I was born. A company like Instagram tells me my work is dangerous, that people shouldn’t see it, that it’s pornographic. How many people are they telling that their body is bad, that their body is dangerous? They say their technology can’t differentiate the context. I don’t care. Change your technology then.


Following extensive public criticism of the decision to censor the artwork, Instagram reversed course and allowed the poster to be displayed on its platform. To the press, the company stated that they “make exceptions to allow nudity in certain circumstances, which includes when there’s clear artistic context. We’ve therefore restored posts sharing the Almodóvar movie poster to Instagram […].” Although Instagram's final decision acknowledged the need for a kind of exception for content that has "clear artistic context," in terms of lens-based works, the company notably seems to only apply this exception to well-known work such as Almodóvar's.





Progress on the Platforms


Despite the fact that the nude has been a central part of artistic expression since before the beginning of recorded human history, artist-activists and advocacy groups have had to defend its place on social media platforms. We’ve had to strategize to safeguard the expressive freedom of artists and creators at times when social media companies were resistant to prioritize artists’ interests over other concerns. Substantial achievements have been made on this front.


In 2018, in response to the Paris high court’s ruling over Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, Facebook modified its policies on nudity. Although Instagram and its then-parent company Facebook both maintained their ban on photographic representations of the naked body, their policies shifted to formally allow artistic nudity in sculpture and painting. Practically speaking, of course, the company continued to censor — the Venus of Willendorf post removal that year standing out as a prominent example of their persistent censorship of artwork, policy pivots notwithstanding. Complicating the issue, the enforcement of Community Standards violations is largely delegated to algorithmic review, so mistakes happen, accentuated by the biases of the algorithms.


In 2019, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) held an art action called #WeTheNipple at Facebook’s NYC Headquarters. The group collaborated with artist-activist Spencer Tunick, who staged a photographic artwork of 125 people posing nude in Astor Place, just outside of Facebook’s offices. Participants covered their nipples and genitalia with 10 inch printed circular cards of photographed male nipples to underscore the gender inequality in existing nudity policies. The stickers’ images included contributions from Bravo’s Andy Cohen, artist Andres Serrano, actor-photographer Adam Goldberg, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Whitney Biennial featured artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Tunick himself.


The #WeTheNipple campaign called on Facebook and Instagram to allow photographic artistic nudity on their platforms. NCAC wrote an open letter to Facebook asking the company to convene a group of stakeholders in the arts to inform the development of new guidelines for artistic context. Three days after the art action took place, Facebook agreed, committing to revisit their policies and to convene a group of artists, art educators, museum curators, activists, and Facebook employees to examine how to better serve artists. NCAC collaborated with Facebook to convene the group, and participants discussed the issue of nude photographic art and the harm done to artists under existing policies, provided insights into the challenges Facebook has faced in developing its nudity policy, and workshopped ideas to move forward.


Following the success of the #WeTheNipple campaign, in 2020 NCAC’s Art & Culture Advocacy Program convened human rights organizations, art collectors, and artist-activists to form Don’t Delete Art (DDA), a project aimed at drawing attention to the damage done when social media companies censor art, and to work towards greater protection of artistic expression across platforms. DDA’s Gallery gives visibility to the types of work that typically gets suppressed, its Resources provide tips for complying with community guidelines, and its Newsletters offer analysis of developments in the field.


In 2020, Facebook also announced the implementation of the Oversight Board, opening up a new avenue for users to appeal their post removals, even after exhausting community guidelines appeals. The same year, the Oversight Board heard its first appeal focused on nudity in images shared on Instagram. The offending content featured images of uncovered female nipples as well as images of female breasts in which the nipple was covered or cropped out — all of which were removed by an automated system enforcing Facebook’s community standard against posts showing “adult nudity and sexual activity.” The Oversight Board overturned Facebook’s original decision on the grounds that the content was allowed under a policy exception for “breast cancer awareness.” Importantly, they recommended the company improve its transparency by notifying users when algorithms are used to moderate their posts and allowing users to appeal automated moderation with a human being. They also advised improved detection of images with text-overlay to better “read” posts addressing breast cancer awareness. Finally, the Oversight Board encouraged the company to revise its community guidelines to specify that female nipples can be shown in the context of raising breast cancer awareness and work to ensure greater consistency between Instagram and Facebook’s community guidelines.


In 2022, following pressure from DDA and other activist groups, Facebook, rebranded as Meta, introduced greater transparency around recommendations guidelines and violation notifications on Instagram. Notably, it improved users’ ability to appeal these “violations” decisions, too. Instagram began to offer a new “Account Status” page — which provides creators with information about how “in danger” their account is based on its past and present violations. Instagram also added greater clarity to their policies in regards to what constitutes “sexual solicitation,” which was encouraging given that those rules are often deployed to justify the removal of legitimate artistic content.


In 2023, we are still pushing for further progress. Artists still do not have a way to appeal downrankings as related to hashtags; the appeals system for recommendations guidelines violations doesn’t let account holders know the extent to which their post history places them at risk; the difference between account downranking vs. post downranking is vague; the nude body in lens-based works is still treated as inherently sexual; and there is still no further explanation as to how a post with lens-based nudity can demonstrate “clear artistic context” as Instagram described in the de-censored Almodóvar/Jaén image. For social media policies to be properly inclusive and supportive of artistic expression, arts communities must be consulted in policy development and enforcement processes.


Conclusion


As artists continue to fight for artistic freedoms online and advocacy groups encourage social media behemoths to act responsibly in providing the public forum they claim to foster, it is important that we both recognize our victories and the work which lies ahead. 


Instagram’s 2019 censorship of Betty Tompkins’ work was a wake-up call for many members of the arts community. Tompkins, whose work — photorealistic close-up paintings of both heterosexual and homosexual intimate acts — had been censored by French customs officers in 1973, and in Japan in 2006, commented on the turn censorship took when Instagram deleted her account. “It is a particularly misogynistic direction. Instagram right now looks like the 1950s, when you couldn’t express anything.”


Fortunately, since then, some things have changed. But when it comes to female and LGBTQ+ nudity, especially in photography or lens-based artwork, much — if not all — remains the same. The DDA Gallery of art censored online illustrates the work that still lies ahead. But there is hope.

In early 2023, Meta’s Oversight Board published a decision that implicated the platform’s handling of what is perhaps the most common cause of censorship: nude depictions of bare female or LGBTQ+ chests. In the second appeal it has heard focused on nudity in images shared on Instagram, the Oversight Board announced a reversal of “Meta's original decisions to remove two Instagram posts depicting transgender and non-binary people with bare chests.” In their written recommendations, the Oversight Board called for Meta to overhaul their nudity policies and ensure that their content moderation policies respected fundamental human rights — such as equal treatment of protected classes and freedom of expression. Meta has committed to "implement in part" the recommendations of the Oversight Board.


Three decades have passed since the creation of the internet, and its initial promises of a more egalitarian, democratic, and open forum for human expression often seem like a distant memory. Internet freedom is on the decline, both in the United States and globally. Wavering at the first hint of controversy, many social media executives seem to prefer freedom from discomfort to freedom of expression. Others indolently favor the simplicity and ease of overbroad content moderation policies to investing in the nuanced sort of policy development that would enable greater artistic expression. Since more complex policies require more time and greater manpower to enforce, there is economic incentive for social media rule-makers to avoid making changes. Despite this, pressure from artist-activists, advocacy groups, and the public has successfully moved social media companies to make limited policy revisions. Nonprofit and government investments in human-centric technologies have also picked up some slack from social media leaders’ intransigence. Just this summer, the ELLIS Alicante Foundation joined forces with DDA to steward the development of human-centric Artificial Intelligence in the context of protecting artistic expression online.


Those of us who care about the history of art must keep faith; censorial regimes eventually crumble, because humanity is simply too difficult to contain and repress indefinitely. The human spirit is resilient, but free expression is vulnerable. If the artistic nude continues to be repressed, we risk cutting off artists from their noblest lineage. From prehistory to the classical period and its many revivals, the human body as an artistic subject has long been a site to celebrate ourselves, explore our origins, and revel in our strength and mystery. A society which censors its own humanity risks losing it altogether.

 

— William Harris, for The New Kronstadt (Nov 29, 2023)

William Harris '24 is a current student at Haverford College.
 

Originally published August 14, 2023 in Don't Delete Art (linked here)

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