Social media management can sometimes feel like a trivial task. However, it is widely known that social media is crucial in advocacy. That is why, when Honeysuckle tried to post Madeleine Aitken’s story about Midori’s shibari and kink, we were shocked to find that Instagram censored the content.
Honeysuckle posted the image, re-typing the caption, a brief excerpt from the article, countless times. Each time, Instagram deleted the informational excerpt and necessary credit tags of the artists involved. We were baffled, wondering if the problem was our internet connection or even our Instagram account. Editors reached out to each other, asking if they could give the post a try. When the same thing happened to them, we came to the realization that Instagram was censoring the post based on the phrases “BDSM” and “kink” being used in the caption, which violated the platform’s guidelines against “perceived body injury.”
How Does Adult Content Censorship Impact Sex Workers?
Social media’s current guidelines can be linked to twin laws passed by Congress in 2018: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The laws were intended to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows for liability immunity afforded to websites who take down user-generated content knowingly permitting sex trafficking. In other words, the government would provide benefits to Instagram if they increased their policing of sexually explicit content.
Vox reports that the laws have led to sex workers becoming houseless and killed due to lack of access to message boards used to screen clients. Sex workers’ rights tech collective Hacking//Hustling conducted a report in 2020 proving that sex workers have become increasingly economically unstable and have been driven toward unsafe options. Overall, SESTA/FOSTA has led to the income crises and deaths of sex workers who are no longer able to ensure their own safety or adequately advertise their businesses online.
Instagram’s Sensitive Content Control: Adult Content Censorship in Digital Practice
Instagram’s most recent content censorship restriction, called Sensitive Content Control (SCC), is a direct result of the SESTA/FOSTA laws. Sensitive content includes nudity, guns and violence. As a default, all accounts block posts including this content without their owner’s knowledge. Additionally, Instagram has implemented a sexual solicitation policy which prohibits every piece of content that implicitly or directly offers or asks for sexual solicitation.
Dr. Carolina Are, a pole dancing activist, stated that as per her communications with Instagram, she understands that to be flagged under the platform's sexual solicitation policy, all one has to do is post sexually explicit content with links to subscription-based websites or captions like “slide in my DMs.” This is incredibly damaging to sex workers in general as it targets the most innocently-captioned posts as well as prohibits most advertisements of sex workers’ individual businesses. (Are has published academic papers on the censorship techniques of shadowbanning and its effects on sex workers, and explores the topic thoroughly on her blog.)
Another daunting issue with SCC is its heightened effect on Black users. Ashlee Marie Preston, a Black journalist, media personality and activist noted for being the first openly trans person to run for office in California, noticed a decline in her engagement from 400,000 followers since the implementation of SCC. (She regularly posts about racism and trans issues.) Worried for the future of activists’ ability to spread awareness, most of Preston’s posts which are censored by Instagram draw attention to the abuse of oppressed peoples.
What is an Instagram Shadowban?
Instagram has long been criticized for the practice of shadowbanning, meaning that the platform can hide or restrict a user’s content without informing said user. In many cases, a shadowban can apply to those who have violated Instagram’s community guidelines and often results in posts not showing up for certain hashtags. The official explanation for the policy is to minimize content that the platform identifies as potentially harmful - scam accounts advertising bot followers or other behavior deemed unethical. Yet shadowbans often end up censoring sex workers. As a report from The Daily Dot explained, unless you use specific programs to test for a shadowban, such as shadowban.eu for Twitter or Triberr for Instagram, there is no absolute way to know if it even happened to your account.
In the platform’s announcement of SCC, Instagram officials stated, “You can think of sensitive content as posts that don’t necessarily break our rules, but could potentially be upsetting to some people—such as posts that may be sexually suggestive or violent.” However, when a policy categorizes hate crimes and oppression with “violence,” what does this mean for those who belong to communities already severely unheard?
“Our identities, experience and very being is going to be deemed sensitive and unsafe because our experiences are unsafe,” Preston said.
Does Instagram Shadowbanning Have a Racial Bias?
Instagram has also been accused of limiting Palestinian activists’ and women of color’s content. Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, has been boycotted for enabling misinformation regarding the Black Lives Matter protests which took place in the summer of 2020 and beyond. Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s CEO, has acknowledged the unfair shadowbanning of Black users. He claimed that Instagram would look into its algorithmic racial bias.
“The irony that we’re a platform that stands for elevating Black voices, but at the same time Black people are also harassed, afraid of being ‘shadow banned,’ [sic] and disagree with many content takedowns is not lost on me,” Mosseri wrote in his statement. “This is a moment when people around the world are rightfully demanding action over words, and we owe the same to our community.”
In a June 2021 blog post, Mosseri broke down the components of Instagram’s algorithm for users, including a generic explanation of shadowbanning. While the statement didn’t specifically address the criticisms of sexual or racial algorithmic discrimination, Mosseri did reference the platform’s previous silence on the topic.
“We recognize that we haven’t always done enough to explain why we take down content when we do,” he wrote. “As a result, we understand that people are inevitably going to come to their own conclusions about why something happened, and those conclusions may leave people feeling confused or victimized.”
Shadowbans and Adult Content Censorship on Twitter
On the other hand, Twitter is known for the shameless sex content it provides. Large companies that sex workers utilize such as the adult platforms ModelCentro and FanCentro are rarely noticed by Twitter, and the thousands of sexually explicit images available on the website give users the impression of less strict policies. However, many believe that Twitter is much more sinister in its attacks on sex workers than Instagram as their suspensions often target independent, small sex workers and go unnoticed by the masses.
Twitter’s censorship was also influenced by SESTA/FOSTA, but Kat Revenga, head of marketing for ModelCentro and FanCentro, believes that the pandemic gave rise to sites such as OnlyFans, causing sex workers to use Twitter to promote their accounts, has resulted in Twitter being much more vigilant in their suspensions. Because Twitter is known for turning a blind eye to many sexually explicit images, gifs, and videos, sex workers often rely on the website for promotion and communication. Without it, they face a harsh decline in income.
“We’re incredibly frustrated by Twitter’s increasingly arbitrary removal of adult content,” Ravenga said in a statement to XBiz following a suspension for ModelCentro. “We've had no communication at all from Twitter. They provided no warning, nor did they give us any reason why the accounts were shut down. There's no way to appeal, restart the accounts, or even know what others can do to prevent this… The people most affected by this are those who use our platforms to build businesses and communicate with fans. It's not fair to our industry, and it's certainly not fair to sex workers.” She added, “This should frighten everyone in adult [content].”
BlakSyn on Adult Content Creation’s Double-Edged Sword
Someone who is all too familiar with the effects of social media censorship is BlakSyn Brown. As a self-described queer Black kinkster, they have relied on social media to connect to their audience. Brown works in four different areas: pro-domination, BDSM education, erotic photography and pornography. Their kinky platform reflects their dedication to practicing BDSM in a way that tries to regard the practitioner’s complete human experience by addressing past traumas and physical limitations, amongst other things. Their website features educational blogs, such as Brown doing this work to be visible as a Black kinkster.
“I try to be as visible as possible to, you know, wordlessly convey to other Black and POC communities that you can come and do this too,” Brown said.
To accomplish this, Brown has to utilize social media to grow and reach his audience. Brown acknowledged the significant role social media plays in their work but calls it a “double-edged sword.” Due to their growing following, their reach has expanded to an international audience. Building a rapport with this audience is how Brown gets these followers to accompany them when they inevitably feel censorship pressure from platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
“I just want people to be more informed about BDSM but at the same time, as a sex worker and a kinkster, this is my job as well,” Brown said. “Social media affects my money, you know, so if I'm suspended or I go through some shit like a shadowban, then the effect is directly proportionate to my wallet. So, I have to be mindful of how I post, when I post, and what I'm posting.”
Brown has dealt with suspensions, shadowbans and losing platforms that had upwards of 40,000 followers. However, they acknowledge that as masculine-presenting, they get away with more than some of their femme-identifying colleagues or those who are feminine-presenting.
When asked why they felt like social media was plagued by censorship, they highlighted the history of conservatism in American policymaking and businesses needing to comply with pressure from their investors. Instagram has been historically strict with accounts they deem risky content-wise.
''Instagram shadowbans are a dime-a-dozen,” Brown said. “Still, it’s also like a constant and perpetual thing. Once your behavior on Instagram is seen as egregious enough, they just put you on the back burner. They take away certain privileges as well.”
They illustrated this by attempting to go live on Instagram, a function of the platform that they are blocked from due to previous incidents. While they still have access to the site, there are certain things Brown is unable to utilize, such as the live feature.
Overall, the isolation and constant over-policing has become a part of the status quo for NSFW creators. While some express frustration with the system and propose that creators start making their own websites, Brown doesn’t see this as a sustainable option. Besides the cost it would take to create your own site, there are hurdles even large companies have to deal with in terms of being seen as a liability for companies involved in the transactions taking place. Payment processors and banks have had to adjust due to policy changes from companies like MasterCard. Those restrictions trickle down from significant corporations like OnlyFans to smaller creators seeking independence. Proposed alternatives like NFTs or cryptocurrencies present another level of inaccessibility for creators from marginalized communities. When presenting these alternatives, Brown suggested people check their privilege.
“A lot of the things that end up going on, like OnlyFans going down or, you know, SESTA/FOSTA–it will always disproportionately affect communities of color.”