Why Did Instagram Confuse These Ads Featuring LGBTQ People for Escort Ads?Rolling Stone — EJ Dickson
On Tuesday, a thread from Salty, a newsletter and digital publication aimed at women, transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people, started circulating on Twitter. The thread called out Instagram for banning six ads featuring transgender and non-binary people of color. Instagram’s reasoning: the ads in question promoted escorting services, they said, a violation of the platform’s terms of service. There was just one problem with this argument — none of them were sex workers.
The thread was widely shared among LGBTQ activists and sex worker rights’ advocates, in part because this was not an isolated incident: in the past, both LGBTQ people and sex workers alike have complained about being censored by Instagram, even if they have not violated the platform’s terms of service (the most commonly cited TOS violations are usually related to nudity or sexually explicit content, which are prohibited by the platform). And while some feel that such censorship is merely the result of an unreliable or inconsistent algorithm, others have alleged that the platform specifically targets marginalized bodies, such as those of nonbinary people or people of color — a years-old allegation that the Salty thread once again put into sharp relief.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the founder and publisher of Salty, who asked to be identified as Claire F. due to a history of targeted harassment against the website, says that she submitted the above ads for Instagram’s approval over the course of the past six weeks. “A week or two later I’d try another one and get a rejection notice,” she says. “Then it happened again and again.” Though she appealed the decision, stating that Salty and the ads did not promote sex work, she eventually grew so frustrated that she decided to call Instagram out on Twitter.
In a statement sent to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for Instagram says: “Every week, we review thousands of ads — and at times we make mistakes. We made mistakes here, and we apologize to Salty. We have reinstated the ads, and will continue to investigate this case to prevent it from happening again.” But it wasn’t the first time Salty had encountered such issues on social media. The publication, which aims to cover sex and dating issues from a non-heteronormative lens, has grappled with censorship on mainstream platforms “every step of the way,” Claire says: in 2018, for instance, cover model Amber Wagner reported that Instagram had removed a censored topless photo of her on the cover of the magazine. (Instagram later apologized and reinstated the image.) Model Rain Dove, who identifies as nonbinary, also called out the platform for removing one of their censored topless photos for Salty.
The removal of such photos is part of a larger conversation percolating in the LGBTQ community about social media censorship. Last year, reports surfaced that the platform had banned such LGBTQ-related hashtags as #gay, #lesbian, #bi, and #lesbiansofinstagram. (At the time, Instagram justified this decision by claiming that people used the hashtag to post content that violated its terms of service that prohibit nude or sexually explicit content; the company has since restored the tags.) Many have accused Instagram of taking unfair action against sex-positive or body-positive images of marginalized people, such as trans people, differently abled people, or people of color, even if the images ostensibly comply with Instagram’s terms of service.
LGBTQ model and body-positive advocate Ady Del Valle, for instance, has been repeatedly censored or shadow-banned by Instagram for posting topless photos showcasing his nipples, even though he identifies as male and Instagram’s terms of service only explicitly prohibits the showcasing of female nipples. Last month, after a number of his photos were deleted by the platform, his original Instagram was also disabled. He believes that Instagram flagged his content due to his curves and fuller chest. “That’s a bigger issue because now the system is discriminating and not vetting the images how it should and assuming my gender because of my body shape,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think we should have to suffer and lose our work — especially professional work, [for] me as a model — or be removed or silenced.”
Sex educator and influencer Ev’yan Whitney says that when she launched her #sensualselfiechallenge last year, many of the photos that were removed by Instagram were of trans bodies. “Someone would take the same exact photo with the same exact pose and if they were a trans person of color that photo would be taken down,” she says. “The policing of these bodies, I just think, is asinine.”
When asked whether Instagram explicitly targeted or attempted to censor transgender or body-positive users, an Instagram spokesperson said: “Over a billion people use Instagram every month, and operating at that size means mistakes are made — it is never our intention to silence marginalized voices.”
More recently, LGBTQ activists have accused Instagram of specifically targeting them with the rollout of its “borderline” content policy, which deprioritizes borderline sexually suggestive or violent content by making it more difficult to find in the explore tab. Some have speculated that this policy may have been influenced by FOSTA/SESTA, a highly controversial bill intended to curb online sex trafficking that holds websites and social media platforms liable. (Facebook, which owns Instagram, unveiled a section in its terms of service banning sexual solicitation in October 2018; the company has denied that the policy was prompted by FOSTA/SESTA.
The legislation has been a source of tremendous concern for sex workers, says Chelsea Poe, a transgender porn performer and filmmaker who has faced censorship on Instagram. Sex workers with large followings have been increasingly scrubbed from the platform without explanation, according to a May 2019 petition from more than 200 adult performers demanding Instagram provide more clarity to its user policies. And this has had the effect of endangering sex workers, says Poe: “If you have a platform for digital sex workers, you’ll have less women on the street and in a less vulnerable position. [Tech platforms] need to think about that. They think they’re just banning sex workers, and it won’t have an impact on our lives.”
Following the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, some expressed concern that the legislation would have a chilling effect not just on sex workers, but on LGBTQ people who have relied on digital platforms to forge communities, who worried the mere mention of sex or their sexual identities might put them at risk of being penalized by an undiscriminating artificial intelligence program. And while Facebook has repeatedly emphasized this will not be the case, it seems to have been precisely this type of undiscriminating artificial intelligence program that flagged a digital platform for non-heteronormative readers as promoting sexual services, when it did not promote sexual services at all.
As the pressure increases on big tech to eradicate any hint of sexualized content, Claire is concerned that publications such as Salty, which are heavily reliant on platforms like Instagram, will be collateral damage. “Sex workers have said that SESTA/FOSTA would affect people who weren’t sex workers as well,” she says. “And I think that’s what’s happening.” People like del Valle, who has set up a new Instagram, will also continue to challenge censorship efforts. “People like me in the industry will use our voices to fight this and not let our bodies and voices be silenced by whatever agenda is in place to remove us,” he says.