Sunday, 11 October 2015

Censorship in the modern age

"As difficult questions arise about the limits of what people can share, we have a single guiding principle: We want to give the most voice to the most people".
Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's priorities are confusing and misguided

While I've been away on my longer-than-usual Facebook ban, I've been doing some research into the censorship habits of this social network. What I've discovered is pretty alarming! Censorship has always been a big deal for me. I grew up in the Mary Whitehouse / James Ferman era of moral outrage and censorship, resulting in countless home entertainment products being heavily censored or outright banned from public consumption (mostly horror films). I always believed this situation would get better with time, but it's gotten so much worse.


Facebook's terms of use are very clear and I don't for one moment expect to get away with breaking those rules. At the most superficial level, it seems that Facebook intends to keep vulgar content such as pornography and racism off its pages, and this is not a matter I, or most others, would ever dispute. But from my own experience, and from the experiences of others, there seems to be something a little more sinister going on when those rules are applied. For one thing, it seems that the ONLY topic Facebook regards as visually vulgar is nudity - in ANY context. So videos of bullying, beheadings, cruelty, abuse, and so on are all considered fine and acceptable but a medical diagram depicting reproductive anatomy suitable for young students gets banned. And no, I'm not even kidding. This happened!

It baffles me why Facebook regards every instance of nudity as pornographic. Defined by the application of its own rules, it is clearly saying that matters of public interest such as sexual health is pornographic; Breast cancer survivors, normally considered so inspirational and such beautiful symbols of triumph, are all pornographic; Breastfeeding is pornographic; Works of art that study the human form are pornographic. This just isn't acceptable.

The sheer volume of respected art that Facebook has censored or banned is incredibly worrying if you care about art, free expression, or censorship in general. I don't just mean digital photography of nudes, I'm talking classic works, oil paintings, sculptures, modern art, medical diagrams, and even written texts. Nude Statues, the 1866 painting The Origin of the World (which is freely available for all to view in a French museum), work by Salvador Dali, the works of ARTLOG, various pieces of Medieval art, and works by many other artists too vast for me to list, have all been victim to Facebook's atrocious censorship policy. I was astounded to learn that the cover of Nirvana's classic album Nevermind was also banned by Facebook. When I read that scientific and medical diagrams have been censored too, it really forced me to question the whole validity of Facebook as a social platform and what it's actual agenda really is. I'm not into conspiracy theory, but it sure looks like SOMETHING weird is happening behind the scenes of this website.

What Facebook fails to understand is that the finest of fine art is always about the human body in nude form.

I'm well known for photographing horror and dark images of beauty. Often my work involves nudity but I have never once created an image I, and thankfully anyone else I know, would ever consider to be "pornographic". As an individual who worships the concept of individual freedom and expression, I often challenge Facebook's draconian rules with images of satire. Facebook seems to hate the female nipple more than just about anything so it's the female nipple I use as the weapon of my satire. However, in every instance, I follow the rules. I obscure the nipples, and ensure the images comply with the terms of use. Yet the images still get censored and I still get banned. This means one of two things: Either the rules are being very poorly applied by lazy or low-paid moderators who simply don't care about the concepts being reported to them and just click the "ban" button far too easily, or it means that Facebook has a secret policy to wipe out satire and criticism against itself that comes to its attention. In my own case, it wasn't because nipples were on show.
Female skin: Why not just censor the whole lot and be done with it?
Depicting self mutilation in order to satisfy modern censorship standards
How censorship feels to the creative talent that publish art and photography

You could argue that Facebook is a private commercial enterprise offering society a free service and it can decide for itself what rules it creates and what content it allows. It's a pretty sound argument but is flawed by a few complexities. For one thing, it generates huge revenues from advertising to targeted communities, so we're making the site owners and shareholders a tidy pot of gold just by using the service. Shouldn't we have a bit more in return for this? Or are we all just Facebook's revenue cattle? Secondly, Facebook is used by so many people these days from all walks of life, developing so many communities and social engagements that it is surely far bigger and more important to the general population that it's own corporate agenda? Because of what Facebook has become over the years, I believe it has a duty of care towards all the communities that use it, and it should not alienate communities because of poorly managed rules or in-house corporate agendas. Free expression is still protected by laws in the UK and Facebook should be compelled to uphold those laws and protect those freedoms for its millions of users.

Hate and racism is a whole different discussion and I agree that these types of communities should probably be challenged at the gate, as these are topics that can result in actual harm within the fabric of society. But from where I sit, it seems the creative community is one of the most victimised on the whole network. I'm fortunate enough to know a good number of very fine photographers, artists, models, body painters, sculptors, makeup talent, and other creatives. It's really sad just how many of them have to censor their own works of art in order to display them to their peers via Facebook, and far too many of them (myself included) have had several account suspensions and bans. Yet I can stand here with the greatest clarity and state that not a single one of these individuals ever creates or posts anything even close to "pornography". Some of the most beautiful works I've seen from some of my friends have been censored as obscene. The only obscene thing in this whole matter is Facebook's atrocious behaviour towards the arts. In fact I call it the way I see it: Dictatorship.