Instagram is one of our primary social media haunts.
It’s a visual medium that highlights the time, effort and dedication we’ve put into our dance. While our Facebook groups are great for discussion within the community, Instagram was, for a while, where pole dancers really set up shop.
And then came FOSTA and SESTA.
Buckle up, folks – this is going to be a long one.
If you’ve never heard of FOSTA/SESTA before, they’re twin bills that were brought into US law in 2018, with the intention of making it easier to fight sex trafficking online.
However, the bills don’t actually do anything to target illegal sex trafficking directly.
What the bills actually create a HUGE exception to one of the most longstanding, and perhaps most important, law regarding the internet – Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Essentially, Section 230 meant that ISPS and platforms couldn’t be penalised for what their users might create. It meant that the internet could thrive on user-generated content.
What FOSTA/SESTA did was create an exception to Section 230 in which platforms could be penalised for hosting adverts for prostitution – even including consensual sex work.
The supposed goal was to make it harder for sex traffickers to advertise on platforms such as social media and Craiglist, through the policing of online prostitution rings.
The Internet Association
It’s also worth mentioning that The Internet Association – of which, Facebook and Instagram are a part of – supported the passing of FOSTA/SESTA.
It was clear, even before the wording of the bills were finalised, to many of these companies that moderating themselves to remain compliant would be a mammoth task.
In fact, smaller companies would not have much hope of having the resources to stay compliant.
With the responsibility on companies now to avoid “knowing assistance” – that is, not taking down accounts that are flagged by users – smaller companies would easily fall foul of these new laws if they didn’t have the capacity to immediately review flagged content.
Therefore, it’s likely a good few of these companies, and in particular those with a monopoly like Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, and Google, signed their support for these bills to prevent the rise of potential competitors.
The Glaring Issues of FOSTA/SESTA
When the bills were going through the US Congress and Senate, many sex workers openly spoke out against them as there were no provisions made to protect legitimate sex workers.
As sex workers face ever greater threats of assault, rape or murder, the internet, and in particular, platforms such as Craigslist, offer them a safe space through which they could vet potential clients before agreeing on business.
They can maintain their anonymity for as long as they need, a safe distance away from people who would prey on them, given the opportunity.
Without the internet to pre-screen clients, sex workers would be forced onto the streets to find work, which not only increases the risk of assault, rape or murder, but leaves them without the ability to ensure they work within pre-screened, safe locations.
It can also be argued that FOSTA/SESTA does the exact opposite of its supposed goal.
Many critics of the bills argue that by criminalising platforms like Craigslist, sex traffickers and their victims are driven further underground and within the domains of the deep web, where it is far harder for them to be found by law enforcement.
The Shot Heard Round The Internet
The language of FOSTA/SESTA is so incredibly vague and all-encompassing that it doesn’t even directly target sex trafficking at all.
What it does do is penalise any website that “promotes or facilitates prostitution”, and allows law enforcement to go after any platform that is found to be “knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting” sex work advertising – which also, surprise surprise, targets legitimate sex workers.
With the language being as vague as it is, it left a lot of ISPs and platforms wondering what the hell to do in order to avoid being held accountable for the actions of their audience.
Websites began shutting down their personals sections, escort websites closed down entirely, and Reddit shut down multiple subreddits like r/hookers, r/MaleEscorts, and r/SugarDaddy.
Even Microsoft amended its Terms of Service for programs like Skype, with many users fearing they could face severe penalties for consensual sexual activity over the platform if they were flagged by Microsoft’s auto-detection systems.
And Now, We Get To Instagram
Instagram isn’t immune to these bills.
With the wording of FOSTA/SESTA being so non-specific, any vaguely sexual content is increasingly being scrutinised by platforms who aren’t entirely sure where the line of censorship is actually drawn.
As Instagram can now be held accountable if law enforcement in the US deems them guilty of facilitating sex work, any kind of content that could be interpreted as sexual is buried through shadowbanning users, hashtags, and deleting accounts entirely.
The banning of pole dance specific hashtags – which, we must remember, are not only used by students but strippers, sex workers, brands and other businesses who make a living from pole dance – is a huge issue facing our community right now.
However, a key fact to remember is that Instagram’s day to day running is most likely governed entirely by an algorithm – except where actual humans have to get involved.
Combine this with the fact that FOSTA/SESTA is about as clear for ISPs and platforms as milk, it’s pretty safe to say Instagram’s algorithm has been allowed to go overboard.
After all, for a lot of these companies, they’d far prefer pissing off a handful of people (in relative terms to their user base) than face huge repercussions from the US Government.
Outside of FOSTA/SESTA, Instagram’s algorithm is designed to pick up on bots, spam accounts, and the hashtags that they use in order to create more “genuine engagement”. Plenty of innocuous hashtags are banned in 2019 due to these bots and spam accounts using them.
In fact, on the 10th April 2019, Instagram announced it would be cracking down on inappropriate content – including content that doesn’t go against its community guidelines, like any kind of content that is sexually suggestive.
Reporting and the Algorithm
With platforms like Instagram being held responsible for user content, it’s far better for them from a corporate perspective to over-police what content is allowed on the platform than risk the repercussions of this new legislation.
Part of this involves the reporting of posts for sexual content.
When we’ve searched Instagram for what pole hashtags we’re still okay to use, we come across this message:
Clearly, posts from pole dancers are being reported. By who, we don’t know – although we do know there’s an incel specifically reporting porn performers, who was also responsible for the removal of Exotic Cancer’s account.
I searched the internet for more information as to how reporting on Instagram actually works with their algorithm, and I came across a fairly in-depth guide as to how reporting works. While there’s no information as to how the algorithm works in regards to reporting, it looks like it takes reports of “nudity and pornography” far more seriously than accounts marked for spam.
While Instagram remains silent about how it’s algorithm works, or how many reports are needed in order to shut down posts, hashtags or even entire accounts.
While it’s easy (and perhaps optimistic) to assume that it takes multiple reports to shut down content, this article from Jezebel suggests otherwise.
It seems like, in cases where accounts are being reported for hosting sexual content, it only takes one report – regardless of its source, motivation or whether the content is indeed sexual in nature – to shut down posts, hashtags, or accounts.
I’m not saying Instagram is completely innocent in all of this. Far from it.
While they’re having to deal with FOSTA/SESTA and the vagueries that come with it, they’ve also built perhaps one of the laziest moderating algorithms of any social media website I’ve come across.
Shadowbanning is, by its very nature, quiet.
Instead of Instagram outright removing posts or entire accounts – which it definitely does, as I mentioned above – removing hashtags simply makes our content harder to find.
Shadowbanning doesn’t require human moderators to look at hashtags and decide whether it goes against Community Guidelines – or, indeed, things that are just not apparently appropriate on the platform.
Instead, if posts that have previously used this hashtag have been reported and removed, it can automatically flag the hashtag.
It’s a means of Instagram hiding any content that might violate FOSTA/SESTA without a human being ever having to be involved, past algorithm programming and appeals.
In addition, the very act of shadowbanning content that isn’t apparently permitted – despite nothing saying so in the Community Guidelines – is an entirely lazy route to avoid writing new guidelines, and to avoid the backlash from obvious body policing.
The Misogyny Of It All
This isn’t to say that everyone is being targeted fairly.
It’s being widely reported that #FemaleFitness and #Stripper are banned, but #MaleFitness is not.
Similarly, #FREETHENIPPLE has been banned, but #titsoutfortheboys is still going.
The news that Instagram will be taking down any sexually suggestive content unfairly targets women – because, as we all know, women and femme bodies are automatically sexual, showing skin pops boners, and fuck it, if those bodies are on show, they’re available to be viewed in a sexual manner.
But not men. Men are only sexual if they’re deliberately trying to be.
Which is why it’s pretty awesome that pole dancers are flooding #MaleFitness with pictures, videos and protests at Instagram’s banning.
With us being part of a sport which was born and popularised by sex workers, pole dance is seen as inherently sexual – especially you are a woman, or have a femme body.
Even if you don’t post content related to the practice of the more sexual styles of pole, we’re still sexualised due to the clothing we wear and the association of the sport with its origins in strip clubs.
While pole dance, and in particular the sport side of pole dance, does share plenty of similarities with gymnastics, gymnastics doesn’t face the same level as stigma given that it didn’t originate with sex workers.
Saying that, I’ve heard from a few of you that some Yoga instructors are now being targetted with shadowbans…
So How Does This Affect The Pole Community?
One of the biggest impacts I’ve seen since our hashtags started being banned is the huge drop in Instagram engagement.
This blog’s Instagram account has seen a significant drop in its reach and impressions, despite me posting more regularly than I have done over the past few weeks.
I’ve also been chatting with folks in our community who make a living through pole dance to see how the shadowbans have affected their livelihoods.
So firstly, as an instructor, I find pole-related hashtags invaluable. If we’ve been working on a trick in class I often search for new combo ideas or new entry ideas if a certain entry isn’t clicking for a particular student. It’s also good for my more advanced students to learn new and challenging ways to use a trick we’ve been covering, so that they can continue to push themselves and don’t get bored while a less advanced student is still learning that trick.
Secondly, when it comes to advanced tricks, it’s super important to be able to see a trick from many different angles and entries so that you can learn how to do it properly and safely. It’s important to be able to find other polers and instructors who can give you suggestions and pointers, especially if that suggestion is “don’t try this on your own – you need a good coach to spot you through it and make sure you’re ready for it” – I’m not the sort of person who’ll attempt something without knowing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, but my god some people are not, some people will 100% try a trick without knowing how to get into it properly and will injure themselves.Jo Jenova, Instructor at A.X. Pole Dance and Fitness Nottingham
And that’s not even getting started on how having a supportive community is just… better. Society flourishes when we share ideas.
I started noticing Hoodlum Fang posts getting less reach a few months ago, I started checking posts by certain hashtags and they weren’t showing up in the feeds so I must have been shadowbanned. So I started doing the usual, playing around with different hashtags (mostly non pole related ones just to get some extra traffic), putting them in the comments etc. I’ve since changed Instagram strategies to share mostly flatlays of our clothes over sharing pictures of our customers, something I’m not happy about because I love showcasing the badassery my customers achieve while wearing our clothes. Another thing I have noticed is that our hashtag #hoodlumfang has been used less and less in the last few months. The hashtag itself isn’t banned but I think users are using other banned hashtags and they are getting shadowbanned so I don’t see their posts when following #hoodlumfang.
I have also recently started up a personal account @baldy_gothpole to help drive some traffic to my business and get the word out there that Hoodlum Fang is a small one person run business. When Instagram pulls other businesses accounts like they did with Off The Pole and censors accounts is makes me very nervous that paying my bills may one day be a problem because reaching my customers will become even harder. Businesses need to start making new strategies for marketing, something that is hard when our market is so niche.Chloe Hood, owner of Hoodlum Fang
Other polers have got in touch to say that they’re no longer using pole hashtags on their posts, or even using hashtags at all.
Strippers on Instagram
Here’s the thing:
Before any of this started hitting pole dancers, it affected the sex worker community long before us.
And the vast majority of us weren’t even aware.
Strippers and sex workers are being hidden behind Instagram’s algorithm to the point where, as Jinxy from the above article says, the only people finding them and contacting them are other sex workers.
Social media is massively important for cultivating communities for sex workers where they can talk to each other, share advice and help to keep each other safe. They can find work on their own terms through social media outreach instead of relying on potentially very unsafe methods, and they can vet potential clients or employers in safety.
The presence of sex workers on platforms like Instagram is also hugely important because THEY ARE HUMAN BEINGS.
No-one deserves to be booted from their sources of connection and community by account of what they do for a living.
As the above article says, sex workers are being banned from Instagram whereas porn producers and nude celebrities are left untouched.
These accounts are being reported and removed, most likely without a single human being at Instagram HQ even being aware it’s happened.
While it’s great that the pole community are coming together to highlight Instagram’s misogynistic “Community Standards”, we need to remember that we are not the only ones victimised.
Our drop in engagement might suck to us, but real people are literally being cut off from their lifeline, their safety networks, and their communities.
What Can We Do?
Support Sex Workers
Yes, you’re right to be pissed about Instagram burying the hashtags that you use.
So are sex workers, but the consequences of that are far more than a few missed likes.
Remember that without sex workers, we wouldn’t have pole dance.
Start listening to the sex worker community and do your research; learn what issues they’re facing, and how you can support them.
Check out the following accounts:
Also, shoutout to @sadistbettiebondage for the recommendations!
Promote them, repost their work, and highlight all the awesome work that they’re doing for the sex worker community.
Support Small Pole Businesses
Consider leaving a review on their Facebook pages and uploading pictures of you wearing their product in their Facebook community groups.
Tag them in your Instagram posts so they can see them and throw recommendations for them around like glitter.
Learn more about FOSTA/SESTA and what’s being done to try and stop it here.
If you’re in the US, contact your Senator and urge them to consider the impact of FOSTA/SESTA on the world – you can find out how to do that here. In addition, read up on which Democratic candidates in the 2020 election voted for FOSTA/SESTA in 2018, as well as what their current stances are on the rights of sex workers and internet freedom. Support candidates that openly oppose FOSTA/SESTA.
Flood Instagram’s Reviews
Leave reviews on Instagram’s…Instagram page, tag Instagram’s founders ( @mosseri, @kevin and @mikeyk) in your posts protesting the shadowbanning, flood the app review pages, or leave negative reviews on Facebook.
Use Alternate Hashtags
While Instagram’s algorithm may catch on eventually, use alternative hashtags to protest against censorship and, hopefully, make audiences that wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to sex workers and the pole community aware of what’s happening.
They can’t hide us. Not all of us.
#malefitness is being used a LOT right now by pole dancers, so I’d suggest using that hashtag until it gets shut down.
There’s a few petitions going around Facebook at the minute in regards to the censorship of female and femme bodies on Instagram. If you’ve got a minute spare, please consider signing them.
They might not address the FOSTA/SESTA root of the problem, but it might help the community get noticed by Instagram and – hopefully – inspire them to reverse what they’ve been doing.
Don’t Be Keyboard Warriors
Perhaps most important of all:
If you’re pissed, do something about it.
Please, for all of our sakes, don’t sit behind a computer screen and complain about how you’re being censored and not bother trying to enact change in your life.
Actively support sex workers.
Go out and protest for things you believe in.
Listen, learn and encourage.
Get out there and make your voice heard in any way you can, because the world needs more kindness. The world needs more people like you to stand up for what you believe in.
It might feel futile; you might feel like one person can’t change the world.
But if we speak in unison, if we look out for each other, if we enact change in every way we could, many people thinking “but I can’t do anything on my own” can change the world.
I hope this post has helped clear up what’s going on with Instagram at the minute and helped you understand how the problem goes far beyond those of us who only pole dance as a hobby.
Next week, I’ll be going back to my Pole Goals 101 series, with a post about the benefits of engineering your environment and how it’ll help you achieve your goals.
Comments? Feedback? Want to rant about people who use the hashtag #notastripper with me? Head on over to the Sass and Clacks Facebook and Instagram (ironic, I know) to join in the conversation, or follow Sass and Clacks on Pinterest.