Image by Jaylon Smith
Image by Jaylon Smith

Stephanie Sarley is an Instagram user who has recently gained attention due to the interesting and somewhat innovative art she’s been featuring – specifically, performance art in which she suggestively touches fruit. Unsurprisingly, there’s backlash regarding this, as it is designed to insinuate sexual actions. Despite a relative lack of restrictions on the internet, Instagram has disabled her account a total of 3 times.

Instagram has had problems like this before, and it’s unlikely to be their last issue with sexual themes needing to be taken down from their website. However, it does call into question the problem of whether art should be censored the same way pornography is, or the same way nude imagery posted specifically for vanity purposes is. The art world has faced this sort of senseless censoring countless times in the past, and each time, we tend to draw the same idea – that art should not be censored despite its more “titillating” aspects.

With all this in mind, why is it that social media is so adamant with censoring images and media on their website? It could just be that there is too much content to have that kind of executive oversight over every single user’s posted work systematically deleted by automatic censorship bots designed to seek out that kind of content and erase it. If that’s the case, however, there’s still a major problem with that kind of approach. These sorts of systems go out of their way to delete anything that could be tagged with things like “#sex,” “#vagina” etc., which are generally good terms to look for when removing content that could be pornographic. Funny enough, that system also deletes things under #eggplant.

 

Potentially you could just cut out tag searches in general. Instead, have the bots search for actual, concrete content – like an image featuring a woman’s nude breasts. Or cakes. As Sue Moseley found out, even posting images of simple confectionary could get you in trouble. Specifically, the reason it was deleted and Moseley’s Instagram account was suspended was because an automatic “nudity-detection bot” discerned that her Easter simnel cake looked like a positive match for a female breast. These sorts of systems simply can’t be trusted to work.

 

Perhaps we could just trust the flagging system so many social networks take advantage of. However there’s still a problem with that, considering how much outrage and backlash she received from the general public. Stephanie Sarley’s account was reportedly suspended so often due to massive flagging on the part of the user base. You could argue that that this is a good thing – the people basically get to decide what they think is acceptable to see or not. If it was really a democratic system like that implies, there would be a way for users to “anti-flag” things, or support them in some way, and unfortunately no such system has been utilized by any of the flagship social network sites. It’s simply a format that a small number of dissenting individuals can utilize to effectively silence an artist’s voice, like what took place in this instance and others like it.

Generally, most sites would say this kind of censorship of art is acceptable on social networking sites. Sites like Facebook and Instagram have frequently gone under the radar for their strict censorship rules. On the other hand, other sites like Twitter and Tumblr have a much more open policy. If the trend of censoring art like this continues, Instagram and Facebook, like many other comparable networks have experienced in the past, will likely fall to a more liberally minded social network that arises from the need to express oneself without censorship. It’s not just the wrong thing to do ethically – it’s also a bad idea financially. Networks like Fox have been heavily reprimanded for their censorship of art, and this trend is likely to repeat itself, especially in the particularly fluid market of online media.

The bottom line is, this is a losing battle, and the pandering being done to those in favor of censorship is bound to be a failing maneuver in the long run. Social networks need to grow up and realize the people who support them want to be able to express themselves, and efforts against it will only end in bad press for these networks.