Facebook is one of the largest and most prolific social media platforms on the planet. As a private company, it has the right to remove whatever imagery it deems obscene or harmful. However, Facebook’s algorithms and collective human moderators have come under fire recently, showing a distinct inability to distinguish between blatant obscenity and important historical artworks.
In one instance, the software blocked a photograph of the statue of Neptune that stands at the centre of the Piazza de Nettuno in Bologna Italy. The reason for the removal was that the photograph was deemed to be “sexually explicit”.
A local writer has used the image, depicting a naked Neptune holding a trident to illustrate her page entitled “Stories and views of Bologna”. Facebook promptly blocked the image saying that it violated the guidelines on advertising.
Flaws in the System
In 2017, Facebook ordered a Norwegian user to remove the classic 1972 Pulitzer-winning “Terror of War” photograph that depicted a naked girl running away from blasting napalm attacks in Vietnam. This image was used in a post about iconic images that changed history. In this case, Facebook claimed the photograph violated nudity rules but later changed their decision, recognising the historical importance of the image.
More recently, Facebook algorithms came under fire when it was unable to make a distinction between porn and ancient artefacts. In this example, an image was shown of a pudgy stone figure with wide hips and large breasts. Discovered in 1908, the “Venus of Willendorf” is one of the oldest and most important artworks in the world and resides in the prestigious natural history museum in Vienna.
It is Art or Is It Porn?
The image of the Venus of Willendorf was removed shortly after posting with an explanation that the naked figure was inappropriate for the social media site. This is despite the fact that Facebook’s policy allows for photographs of paintings and sculptures depicting nude figures. According to the Natural History Museum, there has never been a complaint by visitors concerning the nakedness of the famous figurine.
In 2015, Facebook was accused of censoring photographs of the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Allegedly, the image was removed because it contained too much bare skin and had sexual undertones. According to Facebook, it restricts nudity with images of genitals and bare buttocks being the most regulated. Images of female nipples are also forbidden unless the image is showing breastfeeding or an image of post-mastectomy scarring. How an image of a famous statue can be removed is concerning.
Calls for Tighter Controls on Fake News
The issues with monitoring and removing content posted by Facebook’s 1.4 billion users has provided even more reason for people to doubt the efficacy of the social media site to police “fake news”. Over the past year or so, activists and politicians have been calling on Facebook to reduce and stop the spread of gross misinformation. They have also asked that the social media site be more proactive in determining what is a credible news source, and to rate a story on its trustworthiness.
We have already seen the effects of such policies with the banning of cryptocurrency advertisements and related posts. Whereas in the past you may have seen an advert for pokies that could be played using Bitcoin, or the opportunity to trade on a cryptocurrency platform and make money, those days are now long gone.
While users may have issues with the removal of certain content, Facebook is continually heightening its censoring due to pressure from authorities. Recently, the European Commission recommended that major social media sites remove terrorism related content within 24 hours of being flagged by law enforcement. Social media sites are also required to be more proactive in removing hate speech and pornography.
The Censorship Conundrum
In the US, a legislation was passed that would allow websites to be prosecuted for posts by sex workers. So, on the one hand we have the public coming up against a set of rules and algorithms that cannot distinguish between art and nudity while on the other, we have the authorities that are demanding tougher restrictions. If things stay as they are, we are bound to have more incidences where famous paintings, sculptures and artwork is removed for its sexual content while blatant pornography, hate speech and terrorism posts slip through the cracks.
Like all evolving systems, Facebook and its algorithms are simply playing catch-up. It may just be a matter of time before the right sequences are in place where moderators and the software can accurately distinguish between the “good” and the “bad”!