A few weeks ago, I published So, You’re Shadowbanned On Instagram.
This was only one of multiple blog posts, social media posts, videos and protests against Instagram’s censorship of pole dancers and the shadowbanning that was affecting our community.
Jordan Kensley shared stories from across the pole dance and sex worker communities about how shadowbanning was affecting us. She also highlighted who to follow to learn more and get involved with the fight for sex workers’ rights.
Sarah Scott released a video updating us all on the progress of Pole Free and how to get involved in the fight against FOSTA/SESTA.
An apology directly from Facebook (which owns Instagram).
What Have We Achieved?
Well, for one, we’ve forced Facebook to make an official statement to the tens of thousands of us who protested against Instagram’s shadowbanning.
The fact that Facebook has directly responded to Carolina’s communications for the first time since she started contacting them in March is huge. As she describes in her post, every other response from Facebook was only to be paraphrased and not quoted as a direct response.
This is the first time that Facebook has released a statement about the shadowbanning of members of the pole dance community with a response that Carolina was allowed to directly attribute to a spokesperson.
The fact that the combined efforts of the hard-working individuals behind Team Lift The Pole Ban led to this is amazing. Drawing any kind of information out of Facebook is like drawing blood from a stone, so the fact that their combined efforts led to hearing directly from Facebook in an official manner is nothing to be sniffed at.
We’ve opened up the conversation about censorship on social media.
More people than ever within our community are talking about the censorship not just of the pole dance communities, but also sex workers, sex-positive accounts and channels, and female/femme bodies in general.
We’ve opened up the conversation about the effects of FOSTA/SESTA.
Across the pole dance community, thousands of pole dancers came together to discuss the effect of FOSTA/SESTA not just on our community, but on our sex worker friends and the dangerous precedent it sets for the internet as a whole.
Which is all fine and dandy, but…
The ‘Apology’ Didn’t Really Say Anything
On the surface, it sounds great.
Instagram has admitted they’ve made a mistake and apologised.
“Blocked in error”
The only way hashtags such as #stripper, #femalefitness, and anything #pole or #pd were banned in error is if Instagram’s algorithm is at fault.
From Blogger on Pole’s article, we’ve learned that when a hashtag is related with a large amount of spam or reported content, it will stop showing the Most Recent feed on that hashtag – and do the same with related hashtags.
All of which sounds like the intentional operation of the algorithm.
The way I see it, there’s no way the algorithm blocked the hashtags commonly used by sex workers and pole dancers by mistake.
After all, the algorithm is designed, presumably, to help Instagram regulate itself for the purposes of FOSTA/SESTA, and to enforce its community standards.
From a programming standpoint, an algorithm is only as good as its developers and the data it is given to work with. Regardless of if this data is flawed – which, it probably is – as long as the algorithm is performing its function as designed, it’s working correctly.
It’s just that this time, we called Instagram out, we shouted loud, and we held them accountable for the shit they were pulling with the pole dance and sex worker communities.
All of this reeks of Shroedinger’s Asshole – you know, the kind of person who does something shitty, but claims it was just a joke when you call them out on it.
“Operating at that size means mistakes are made”
Operating at Instagram’s size means more controls need to be put in place so that mistakes aren’t made.
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have a huge responsibility to act responsibly.
From how these platforms affect our mental health to how they influence real-world events through their algorithm, these platforms have a massive social responsibility not just to each individual user, but to the countries they operate in.
Mega-corporations like Facebook have the money and resources to ensure that they don’t make mistakes on this scale.
And they don’t get a free pass because, eventually, after months of questioning and years of censorship, they said sorry to a very small percentage of people who have been affected.
“It is never our intention to silence members of our community”
Out of everything they’ve said, this one is blatantly a lie.
Instagram’s community standards disproportionately affect female and femme bodies, which then sees them shadowbanned, blacklisted, or their accounts deactivated altogether.
Even though many people have asked Instagram what counts as ‘some photos of female nipples’, they’ve never clarified.
But men’s nipples are fine?
It also begs the question – where does this leave the trans and queer community?
When are nipples classed as male or female when someone is transitioning?
And even then, where does that leave intersex folx? Genderqueer folx? People who don’t identify with the gender binary?
Are their nipples genderless too? Or does Instagram guess at someone’s biological sex and call it a day?
Outside of the gender binary, it really seems like Instagram spins the wheel on this.
We also know that Instagram has been deleting and shadowbanning the accounts of sex workers and sex-positive educators, artists and creators.
Exotic Cancer’s account was taken down as a result of a self-professed Incel on a reporting-porn-actresses’-accounts rampage.
It was only after a lengthy process of appeals that it was finally reactivated.
Why was it taken down?
Simply because it was reported once.
Exotic Cancer wasn’t given a warning about her content, or told why her account was taken down.
I’m not denying the fact that Instagram actually answered Carolina after months of her trying to get in touch is important.
Facebook isn’t well known for responding to user questions, protests or concerns.
As Carolina pointed out on her Instagram story today – we might have won one battle, but the war’s still going on.
Instagram’s apology doesn’t mean it’s all over, and we can go back to carry on like nothing’s happened.
Instagram has not apologised to the thousands of sex workers, the sex-posi communities, and erotic brands for their censorship.
This is a carefully managed apology aimed at our community as word about our protests and censorship have reached various news platforms.
But don’t believe that we’re the only community out there that’s protesting Instagram’s shadowbanning and misogynistic community standards.
After all, Instagram’s censorship has been reported across the internet, from Huffpost to the Guardian. The Adult Performers Actors Guild is organising against Facebook and Instagram to protest that nearly 1000 adult performers have had their accounts deleted with no notice.
While the Adult Performers Actors Guild has protested outside of Instagram’s headquarters to get their message across, no such apology has found its way to their doorstep…yet.
Our Hashtags Won’t Be Back For Long
A lot of polers are reporting that the hashtags they normally use have been unbanned – i.e. the Most Recent feed is now working again – and rightfully celebrating that the censorship appears to be over.
I don’t believe this for one second.
After all, the algorithm hasn’t changed.
The hashtags related to pole dance may have been re-activated for now, but it’s only a matter of time before some puritanical arsehole who can’t deal with people showing off their skin reports another one of our posts, and the hashtags get taken down again.
If the algorithm bans hashtags related to those used by posts that are reported, then the next round of reports will see the same thing happening.
This is unless, of course, Instagram has whitelisted the hashtags that pole dancers used, and directly complained about, in order to make sure any shadowbans fly completely under our radar next time.
It’s a possibility.
Instagram hasn’t done this out of the good of their cold, robot hearts.
And they’re not going to change their algorithms just because a (relatively) small handful of its users are pissed off.
I just don’t have any faith that, unless Instagram is pushed to do so by more than a small minority of their users, the algorithm will change in any significant way.
The algorithm is there to regulate the platform in lieu of having a human team scouring literally every post for content that violates their terms and community guidelines.
For a platform the size of Instagram, they’d easily have to employ hundreds of thousands of reviewers just to process the 95 million posts that are published every day.
That’s not counting what Facebook themselves would need, as Instagram is arguably a far simpler platform, without the same need to regulate groups, the marketplace, fundraisers, events, job postings and the myriad of other features that Facebook offer on top of simple posts.
From this perspective, building an algorithm to crawl your platform for you, searching for keywords, image content, and any violating content is the quickest, cheapest, and least labour intensive option.
Algorithms don’t only act as virtual bug-swatters to take down inappropriate content.
The Instagram algorithm also prioritises posts from friends and family members over business pages in a push to promote meaningful interaction. Meaning, it ranks posts from people you follow based on their relevancy and perceived closeness to you in your social circle.
Algorithms also are, of course, only as good as the developers, what it’s been told to look for, and the data you put into them.
While we don’t know exactly how these algorithms work, what we do know is that if a user is flagged by the system, they are shadowbanned – that is, their posts won’t show up on hashtag feeds, and their posts will be given a lower priority by the algorithm.
Jordan Kensley also highlighted that the algorithm was unfollowing accounts from user profiles who were shadowbanned, presumably in an effort to curb their natural reach.
Let’s look at this with the perspective of FOSTA/SESTA and the Facebook company’s issue with women in general.
So, the algorithm is given a dataset of things to flag that may indicate an account is in violation of FOSTA/SESTA. In order to protect the platform from a very expensive lawsuit and bad publicity, this algorithm may have been programmed to be over-active.
That is, instead of pushing these flagged accounts to a human moderator for attention, their natural reach is automatically curbed through shadowbans – which makes the violating posts potentially harder to spot by law enforcement and so, they are less likely to be found in violation.
After all, super-rich corporation + “we’re trying super hard we promise, this one slipped past us” = a slap on the wrist, maybe a small fine, and business as usual.
That’s not to say I’m ignoring that accounts of sex workers haven’t been immediately de-activated by the algorithm for hosting ‘inappropriate content’ – despite celebrities maintaining their accounts for posting content with the same levels of nudity.
We’ve all known for a while that the Facebook company has a huge problem with how it moderates women on its platform. But with a spate of female-oriented hashtags being shadowbanned – that is, their Most Recent feeds shut off – it’s safe to say it’s programmed within the algorithm.
As pole dance originated with sex workers, I would also not be surprised if pole dance hashtags are trawled by the algorithm specifically to search for content that violates FOSTA/SESTA.
On top of that, as pole dance requires a high level of skin to be exposed from a practical standpoint, the algorithm could mistake this for nudity if it has not been programmed with the dataset to distinguish between skin exposure and skin exposure in a sexual setting.
That being said, having our posts flagged for nudity – as a result of user reports or algorithm trawling – just goes to show that the algorithm has been programmed to see exposed skin on a female or femme body as nudity.
Whereas, exposed skin on male or masc bodies are considered appropriate for the platform.
Some of our hashtags might be back up, but I honestly don’t think this will be the case for long.
Instagram will not change an algorithm that protects them from FOSTA/SESTA.
And, depending on how that algorithm is programmed and run, the dataset for FOSTA/SESTA violations may only be an ‘add-on’ to the algorithm they use to crawl the platform for content that violates their terms and community guidelines.
There’s no way that our hashtags were taken down ‘in error’, unless the algorithm is not performing its job correctly.
Which all comes down to how ‘correctly’ is defined – from a programming standpoint, if the algorithm has been programmed with and trained to hunt down ‘violating’ content, even if its programmed dataset is flawed, the algorithm is operating correctly.
And, from Instagram’s perspective, the algorithm probably is working correctly.
It’s just that this time, tens of thousands of us called them out on their shit, and they don’t want to look like they don’t have a handle on the situation.
If anything changes as a result of this, I think it will be that the dataset and learning given to the algorithm will be reviewed and tweaked. But we haven’t seen the last of losing our hashtags.
Our Bodies Are Still Deemed As ‘Inappropriate’
As Blogger on Pole explains, Facebook (and therefore Instagram) still class female bodies as ‘borderline content’.
As content approaches the ‘borderline’, the algorithm starts to discourage people interacting with it through – you guessed it – shadowbanning hashtags, ranking accounts lower in the feed, and deactivating ‘offending’ accounts completely.
While Instagram is now allowing appeals against posts taken down for violating their rules on nudity, this doesn’t change that posts can, and will still be taken down.
Both Instagram and Facebook have it literally written within their operations that all forms of female nudity are ‘borderline’ content – that is, of course, unless you’re a celebrity.
Then you’re fine.
As I mentioned earlier about the algorithm, as long as the algorithm is trained to see female and femme skin exposure as nudity – unless you’re rich, of course – many posts will still be flagged, taken down, and entire accounts removed in error.
The sentiment that female and femme bodies are inherently sexual and available to be sexualised can be seen across our society in many different forms.
Pole dancers defend the need to wear skimpy clothing as something that is required, presenting it through the words they choose and their tone of voice as something that is beyond our choice.
Despite the fact that for a lot of pole dancers, exposing your skin is empowering, powerful, and super important in changing how we’ve been conditioned to think about exposing our bodies.
People question why we need to wear so little, and we immediately go on the defensive, instead of explaining that while skin exposure does help to keep us safe, pole dance classes and studios are a safe space for us to expose our bodies, judgement-free.
We don’t tell these people that actively sexualising ourselves is empowering, and for many can be a key part in recovering from previous trauma.
We don’t say that these classes allowed us to start wearing bikinis again because we stopped giving a fuck about body policing.
We need to challenge why our bodies are seen as inappropriate as the first place.
We need to challenge a culture where many girls are catcalled while they’re in their school uniforms.
We need to challenge a culture where adverts for shaving products for women always show them using the products on skin that’s already bare.
We need to challenge a culture where mothers are shamed for breastfeeding their children in public – all because people using their breasts for their intended function is uncomfortable in a society where breasts are so sexualised even past breast cancer campaigns don’t focus on saving the actual person with cancer, but the breasts.
We also need to challenge the idea that nudity is shameful, exposing our skin shows ‘a lack of self-respect’, and that people should only love their bodies if they look a specific way.
While the attitude that the Facebook company is showing towards the regulation of female and femme bodies on its platforms is definitely puritanical, it’s only through challenging these preconceptions we might start to see change on these big social media platforms in regards to how women and femme folk are seen.
After all, if the Facebook company claims our bodies are appropriate, the system won’t stand up for us when our accounts are reported by individuals with a vendetta against what we do.
Sex Workers Are Still Discriminated Against
I’m going to say this louder for the back of the class:
INSTAGRAM HAS NOT APOLOGISED TO SEX WORKERS.
Instagram hasn’t even acknowledged that its discriminatory algorithm has affected sex workers.
While the Facebook company’s direct acknowledgement of pole dancers being banned “in error” is a small win, sex workers were not acknowledged at all.
It looks like hashtags like #stripper are back up, where they were shadowbanned during the wave of bans that hit pole dancers.
We need to remember that while our community has shouted loud about our rights and censorship of our sport, sex workers are still facing discrimination on Instagram and Facebook.
I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it until I die:
You can’t take on the sex worker aesthetic without respecting sex workers.
I’ve seen a few people in the past few years take on the stripper and sex worker aesthetic as part of their stage persona, their performances, or just in general, without speaking up for sex workers, without championing sex workers rights, and without using their platform to speak up for sex workers.
It reeks of ignorant privilege.
We can’t stop holding Instagram accountable just because we have a slight bit of validation.
We need to use our platforms, the privilege we have, and the spaces we frequent to stand up for sex worker rights. We need to pressure Instagram to acknowledge the sex worker community past reinstating accounts they deleted ‘in error’.
We need to use this ‘in’ we have with the Facebook company to stand up for the sex worker community.
FOSTA/SESTA Hasn’t Gone Anywhere
This is the big one, folks.
We may have won a bit of acknowledgement, but we haven’t won the war.
The repealing of FOSTA/SESTA is another battle we need to start focusing our efforts towards.
Now that we’ve all learned more about these bills, what they mean for our community, the sex worker community, and for the freedom of the Internet as a whole, it’s time to take action.
In the US:
- Read into which 2020 Democratic Candidates voted for FOSTA/SESTA – and other bills that directly affect sex workers.
- Contact your local representative and pressure them to join the fight against FOSTA/SESTA
- If you can, donate to or support candidates who are openly trying to fight FOSTA/SESTA, like Suraj Patel
- Open Society Foundations is accepting applications for grants in order for sex worker-led organisations to fight FOSTA/SESTA
- Donate to the EFF, who are representing multiple organisations in challenging FOSTA/SESTA in the US Courts
- Donate to the EFF, who are representing multiple organisations in challenging FOSTA/SESTA in the US Courts
- Support organisations that fight for sex worker rights, like The Global Network of Sex Work Projects
- Support sex workers rights in your home country by finding local organisations that stand up for sex workers, protesting alongside them and speaking up for them wherever you can (of course, if it’s safe for you to do so)
- Observe International Sex Workers Day on the 2nd June and International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on the 17th December. Use these days to share resources to help sex workers, share their social media profiles, and speak up for sex workers’ rights
Switching Platforms Won’t Solve Anything
Over the past few days, I’ve seen a TON of people migrating to Pole Riot.
I get it – Pole Riot is created for pole dancers by Cleo the Hurricane, and removes the fear of censorship from a misogynistic corporation.
But switching platforms to escape censorship is the digital equivalent of jumping in a swimming pool as the world burns around you.
Sure, you’re safe – but the world’s still burning.
We all know that the censorship on Instagram and Facebook, even outside of the additional regulation from the vague wording of FOSTA/SESTA, is bullshit.
I can’t say I blame anyone who wants to ditch Instagram to move to a platform that’s more accepting of who they are, what they do, and how they train. Hell, I’m thinking of signing up for Pole Riot, and I’m still waiting with baited breath for Pole Free.
Also, before anyone says anything, I don’t have an issue with these platforms popping up.
I think it’s awesome that the pole community is taking the initiative and carving out spaces of our own on the internet.
I just have a couple of issues with the approach some parts of the pole community are taking to the whole issue of censorship on Instagram.
Social Media Censorship
Look, just because you’re not on Instagram any more doesn’t make everything magically go away.
Instagram will still continue to censor its users, and not giving a shit just because it’s not affecting you is a massively privileged position to take.
Sure, you might now have access to a platform where you can post your videos with reckless abandon but here’s the thing –
Huge platforms like Facebook and Instagram hold a huge percentage of Internet real estate.
And, in recent years, we’ve seen the internet become more and more regulated by governments and international organisations – both for better and for worse.
The censorship of the Internet is a huge issue that should concern everyone.
While smaller platforms like Pole Riot and Pole Free are headed by a far more community-minded team than these larger platforms, they are still small fish in a huge, infinite ocean of giants.
Moving platforms won’t even make a dent in current issues regarding censorship.
Even if you manage to convince thousands of people to leave Instagram, the platform’s huge enough to the point where that loss won’t even make a dent in their financial figures (relatively, of course).
Our right for freedom of expression is increasingly coming under pressure in the name of fighting terrorism and policing potential breeding grounds of hate on the Internet.
While none of us can deny that preventing the radicalisation of young men into the world of violent Incel-dom is a good thing, censorship can go too far.
After all, the current round of shadowbans on Instagram just goes to show that the decisions behind what is ‘inappropriate’ are very subjective.
These decisions are also not applied consistently, with ordinary folk like you and I being flagged for nudity where celebrities like the Kardashians, Chrissy Tiegen and all manner of other rich folks can post their bodies with reckless abandon.
Moving away from these Internet behemoths won’t challenge the censorship on their platforms, as we’re all just data points on a map.
What will challenge censorship is continuing to push the boundaries of what’s considered ‘inappropriate’, speaking up against Internet censorship and defending our rights to reside online.
Not switching platforms and pretending like everything’s okay, just because it doesn’t affect you in ways that you notice.
No, the shadowban isn’t over.
We’re still going to be censored on Instagram and Facebook.
Sticking our heads in the sand by moving to another platform won’t solve anything.
There’s still a lot we can do as a community to stand up for the sex worker community, direct more people towards resources that help sex workers, and amplify their voices.
Nothing’s going to change unless we, as a community, stand up and fight for what we believe in.
I know this is a bit more of an opinion post than the last one, but I hope it helps shed some light on why I’m cynical about the ‘apology’ that some parts of the pole community are seeing as a gift from the pole deities themselves.
If you take anything from the post, please remember this one thing:
I don’t think getting a direct response from the Facebook company is a bad thing – in fact, it’s a significant step in our fight for greater Internet freedom for pole dancers and sex workers!
But I am cynical about what it actually means for the community. I don’t think it means everything is over.
As Blogger on Pole quite eloquently said, we may have won this battle, but we haven’t won the war.