Don't Delete Art

June 15, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

2021-05-31: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2021-05-31: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." Today is a "Day of Action" for the group "Don't Delete Art," which is dedicated to pushing back against the censorship of art on social media platforms like Instagram.

Their manifesto is succinct and well-written enough to be worth copying verbatim here:

Social media is a critical avenue for artistic exposure and expression; in 2020, it replaced art fairs as the third most successful way for galleries to sell art. As a result, social media corporations have become cultural gatekeepers with unprecedented power to determine which art works can freely circulate and which ones are banned or pushed into the digital margins.  

Overly restrictive and unclear community guidelines, along with vague definitions as to what counts as “objectionable” material, routinely erase art from search functions, explore functions, and hashtags. Algorithmic errors result in the removal of work, in account deletion, suppression of reach, and in loss of followers. Appeals processes are difficult, protracted, and often ineffective.

As cultural workers and institutions we are deeply concerned about this arbitrary and needlessly aggressive gatekeeping. It negatively impacts artists—who feel fearful and powerless, and often opt to censor themselves—and considerably restricts public access to visual art. Furthermore, as social media companies are held to different and changing regulatory standards in the US, Europe, and the UK, it will be critical for at-risk artists to be considered and valued as companies adapt. The artists and audiences that are likely to be most severely affected are those living in oppressive regimes, those coming from marginal groups, and those who lack museum or gallery representation. 

For social media to be a place where the arts and artists can thrive, we call for the reconsideration of existing restrictions on artistic content; for review of alleged violations; and for a better appeals and notifications process as specified by the Don’t Delete Art Campaign and the Santa Clara Principles. Every platform should have established methods for incorporating artist perspectives into its content moderation policies, as well as special procedures for the review and appeal of art-related posts. 

JOIN US in telling social media companies that there must be greater support of artistic expression on social media.

2021-10-01: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2021-10-01: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." This is a very personal issue for me, given the enormous number of my photos that have been removed based on perceived violations of vague and confusing guidelines and so-called "community standards," despite my sincere efforts to be compliant, and the damaging consequences to my free expression as an artist, including having my account suspended, cancelled, and defamed as a tool for "sexual solicitation."

In preparation for today's Day of Action, I have compiled a collection of all of my photos that have been penalized, over the past five years, in one way or another, and have put them into a gallery called "Banned Art" on my website. There are 46 separate photos all together, an average of once every six weeks. And it's actually even more than that, because I've also been slapped repeatedly for sharing, in my stories, photos posted by other artists. In other words, someone else posts a photo in their main feed and doesn't get in trouble for it, but I share it to my story and get accused of "sexual solicitation," which has happened numerous times over the years. That's how arbitrary this all is.

Here are a few highlights (or lowlights) from my experiences over the years.

2018-01-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2018-01-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." The earliest photo I have a record of having removed was this one in January 2018, a (fully censored) image of Thatonekatt posing in a window in 2016. I've always been sensitive about the fact that my work features nudity, and while I don't have the hangups about the human body that so many in our culture do, I've always used blurring or, more commonly, black bars, boxes and circles to cover up the "offensive" parts of the image. Instagram, apparently, agreed that the nudity was properly managed, because this photo was removed for "sexual solicitation," a pattern that ended up being repeated over and over and over throughout the years.

So what is "sexual solicitation?" According to Instagram (now Meta), "we don't allow people to facilitate, encourage or coordinate sexual activity on Instagram. Sexual activities include: Filmed sexual activities and porn; Sexual, erotic or tantric messages; Offering or asking for sex or nude images; Sexualized slang, hints or suggestive statements; Language that describes sex or arousal."

Which of these categories do you think this image violates? Personally, I'm clueless.

But this is a patter than has been repeated over and over. My work is artistic. My models are posing in creative ways, not engaging in sexual activities. Nothing about my work can conceivably be interpreted as asking for sex.

2018-06-10: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2018-06-10: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." This image, originally posted in June 2018, is the most baffling of all my censored images. Almost exactly four years after this innocuous photo was published, I received notification that it had been removed because "your post goes against our guidelines on adult sexual solicitation." First of all, it had been online for four years already, but more importantly, it's a goddamn portrait! It contains no nudity, no sexuality, no offensive or suggestive language; it's not even particularly sensual. It's just a sweet portrait of a smiling young woman's face.

But by this time I was clearly on Meta's radar. The drumbeat of condemnation of my art had grown to a crescendo, and although my images hadn't changed, I was by then getting flagged sometimes multiple times a week instead of a few times a year. So something in the coding at Meta had identified me as a threat, and was paying a lot closer attention to my account than it had before.

It's hard to know how much of these problems are caused by high-minded busy-bodies who think they can save the world by "reporting" every post that makes them blush, and how much is the result of artificial intelligence run amok. But it's hard to imagine a human being mistaking this portrait for "sexual solicitation." What's the old saying, "to really screw things up takes a computer"... but also, to maliciously screw things up takes a human, so it goes both ways.

Most of the images that got flagged were less out of the blue than that one, but often not by much. I mean, what's offensive about these two images? They're pretty mild, if you ask me. Yet both of these passive photos, somehow, represent "adult sexual solicitation."

2020-12-30: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2020-12-30: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." 2021-04-09: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2021-04-09: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."

Here are three more that illustrate another point, which is that these accusations of sexual impropriety are clearly divorced from their context within an actual community of artists. The black and white image is called "Exclusive," and has been accepted by Photographic Society of America-affiliated photo salons around the world, in Romania, Montenegro, India and Ireland, and was exhibited physically at 3 Square Art Gallery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The second image is called "Lilith and Eve" and has been part of photo salons in India, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The third image, "Diane," has been accepted in Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, India, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, and has twice been awarded Honorable Mentions.

2021-04-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2021-04-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." 2022-06-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation"2022-06-16: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation" 2021-09-13: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2021-09-13: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."

But then, so much of this is subjective, random, and unevenly applied. I follow hundreds of other artists, of course, as one does, and as one could argue is the entire point of "social" media. Every day I see artists publishing photos that I wouldn't dare try to get away with, given my own experience, for fear of completely losing my account again. Some images are so minimally censored that I wonder why the artist even bothered. And what's the story with butts?? Yes, Meta's guidelines say they count as "nudity." And yet bare butts are everywhere! I've taken to blocking out the butt crack in all of my photos, having had so many of them removed over the years, and still some of those photos are targeted.

And don't even get me started on the question of challenging a photo's removal, or, even more laughably, trying to get a response from a real live person when you try to appeal. In short: it doesn't happen. Unless you are Pedro Almodovar, there is no way in this Universe to connect with a real person, no matter how good your arguments might be.

2022-07-09: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation."2022-07-09: Removed for "Adult sexual solicitation." And so, after the attacks on my art had reached a crescendo in July 2022, abruptly I received the dreaded message that my account had been cancelled. And yes, I was given the option to appeal, but no, I never received any indication whatsoever, not even an automated response, that indicated my carefully-written appeal had gone anywhere other than a digital dustbin in the basement. Like so many other artists, my creative contacts and networks were just... gone. And I had to start over from scratch.

I'm being even more careful than I was before, with my new account, self-censoring scrupulously; yet still I have photos removed now and then, because it's so hard to know exactly what will and what will not cross the line. Artistic merit plays no part, obviously, and you can't predict how the computers will respond.

2023-06-09: "Can't be recommended to non-followers."2023-06-09: "Can't be recommended to non-followers." The latest development -- and one that I think most people aren't even aware of, because it's so subtle and under the radar -- is that you can now go into your account settings and see whether you might have images in your account that "may go against guidelines for sexual activity or nudity," or that, for that or other reasons, "can't be recommended to non-followers." Which is just a fancy way of saying you've been shadow-banned, that is, dropped out of the algorithm in such a way that your account appears normal, but isn't getting any engagement because Meta isn't showing it to anyone who doesn't intentionally go out of their way to visit your account. Since discovering this feature in February, nine of my photos have shown up in this purgatory. And again, Meta doesn't actually send you a message to warn you of this, they just flag your photos behind the scenes, and the only way you learn about it is to watch your statistics go to zero, or to dig deep into your settings to find the buried notifications. Which is why I've included these nine photos in my "Banned Art" gallery, because they've effectively been ostracized almost as completely as those that were removed entirely.

If you'd like to find out if you're in the same boat:

  1. Go to your account page, and choose the "setting" icon (which looks like an "=" with three lines instead of two) in the upper-right corner.
  2. Choose "Settings and privacy" at the top. (Meta is constantly moving things around, but that's where it is currently.)
  3. Find "Account Status," currently at the very bottom of the list.
  4. You'll see three categories: "Removed content," when "content has been removed for going against our guidelines"; "What can't be recommended," which explains why (in my case) "your account can't be shown to non-followers... your account and content won't appear in places like Explore, Search, Suggested Users, Reels, and Feed Recommendations"; and "Monetization," which indicates whether your violations are so egregious that they won't even take your money. (In my case, they won't show my account to anyone, but they would be perfectly willing to "monetize" my account, if I wanted to throw money at them.)

So what can be done? I wish I knew. Start by going to Don't Delete Art and sign their manifesto. I don't know that it'll make much difference against the Meta juggernaut, but it's worth supporting your fellow artists. Speak out, in any way you can, even though it feels like we are ants protesting the elephants stomping across our tiny trails. Keep making art, obviously. Resist self-censorship. Keep trying to find ways to share art in spite of those who resist it. Remember that this is something artists have been fighting for millennia; social media is new, but prudes and bigots and small minded people and people with power with agendas other than artistic expression have all been around forever. Fight the power.

And Don't Delete Art.

2023-02-10: "Can't be recommended to non-followers."2023-02-10: "Can't be recommended to non-followers."Spirit of the Desert
6I8A3574 (3/4/2017)
Dominique Zuniga
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

2018-04-06 Rochester Erotic Arts Festival (Rochester, New York): Exhibited digitally
2021-08-11 Vidin Spring Circuit (Vidin, Bulgaria) (Nude Color PIDC), as "Desert Light": Accepted
2021-10-15 Kladovo Summer Circuit (Vidin, Bulgaria) (Nude Color PIDC): Accepted



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