Online visibility is at the centre of many digital conversations. Just as much as digital platforms allow us to explore, discover, connect and express ourselves, the digital landscape has been slowly surrounding us with a seemingly inescapable impasse: censorship.
Social media’s entanglement with censorship not only targets “ideas”, but mass communities subjugated for a long list of implied reasons including race, body size, sexuality, gender or disability. Censorship has become another projection of the privilege and prejudice of its algorithms’ creators.
In a project setting out to explore this, RANKIN Creative team Opal Turner and Luke Lasenby created The UNSEEN, a project originally calling out to those who have seen their work unjustly censored online. Following hundreds of replies, the project evolved into a force in making The UNSEEN seen, capturing a diverse cross section of the communities affected.
Karni Arieli, the founder and curator of Eye Mama Project
One of the communities’ contributors to the project is Karni Arieli, the founder and curator of Eye Mama Project, “a global photography platform inviting photographer Mamas worldwide to showcase their experience of motherhood, home and family from 2020 onwards.” Their Instagram is a key platform for this, cultivating a community of like-minded mothers through honest, raw depictions of motherhood.
Instagram’s guidelines state that they “don’t allow nudity”, but “photos in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or an act of protest are allowed.” Meanwhile, the Eye Mama platform has seen account and content bans caused by “anything with breastfeeding/ mum child contact that bares skin/ children that are partially bare, bottoms and nipples of course.”, Karni adds, “I have also had many images removed with absolutely nothing showing.”
Iness Rychlik is an artist creating photographic explorations of the beyond as sculpture. Iness has faced “shadow bans, content removals and threats of account deletion”, with Instagram citing “soliticing sex and Promoting self-harm/suicide” as the reason. “Instagram seems to operate on the assumption that our artistic portrayals of the female form are equivalent to soliciting sex. Meanwhile, the platform allows sexually explicit content to thrive, cultivating bewildering double standards”, Iness explains.
“Moreover, the fact that IG sees my creative portrayals of the female form not as a way of self-expression – but ‘soliciting sex’ – borderlines on misogynistic”, Iness continues. “It’s a touch too close to the ‘she shows her body, so she is asking for it’ rhetoric. I’m also concerned that despite the mainstream conversation about breaking taboos, artists are accused of promoting self-harm or suicide every time they discuss their pain through their work. To claim that a visually refined image glamorises pain is a shallow and incorrect assumption.”
Dr Carolina Are
Pole dancer, teacher and full-time researcher Dr Carolina Are has also faced extensive account bans, content bans and shadows bans. “It’s a continuous, frustrating game of whack-a-mole with platforms, so much that I’ve ended up blending my PhD in the moderation of online abuse with my experiences of censorship, writing papers about it”, Carolina explains.
“Like most user and research ideas about what triggers censorship, is a conjecture – a natural consequence of platforms’ lack of transparency and communication with users, resulting in a variety of theories about their governance.”, Carolina continues. “What is certain is that different bodies have different values on social media platforms: celebrity bodies and celebrity nudity are incredibly lucrative for social networks, bringing engagement, clicks, hits and, ultimately, advertising and media coverage. However, most other bodies – e.g. sex workers, pole dancers, artists, athletes, educators that are not famous – are valued much less by platforms and are, in fact, viewed as inherently dangerous by default.”
Medical Herstory with pro-women’s healthcare infographics have been shadowbanned for using educational hashtags (e.g. #sexualhealth, #sexeducation, and #sexpositive). Creator, Tori Ford, added “Women and other oppressed groups have had to come up with creative means to protest silencing and spread information through word of mouth and community organising.
To protect conversations on taboo topics and to advance social justice, individuals must take action to counteract these oppressive structures. Suppressing information does not stop people from asking questions, and if these questions aren’t answered by reliable sources, misinformation will prevail.”
Furthering this, model Kelly Knox who was born without her lower left arm, has had fully-clothed images shadow banned for “offensive material”.
For disabled bodies to be deemed as offensive isn’t just unnerving, but highlights the personal bias weaved into social platforms’ algorithms/guidelines, highlighting that the conversation unravels far beyond the social media platforms the censorship takes place on. When asked what needs to be done beyond social media, Kelly responded “More marginalised bodies on the runway, in editorials, advertising campaigns, high street, high fashion, T.V”.
The need for response from the outside world – not just the creators themselves – is clear, making a project like The UNSEEN crucial in not just raising awareness, but in actually transforming this restricted visibility. On the future of existence amongst censorship for creators, Carolina adds, “I think it’s important to keep going, to demand for more accountability, transparency and communications from platforms, and to fight for expression through our body to be recognised as a form of speech in need of its freedom”.
For marginalised creators, the fight to continue in the face of censorship and digital oppression must be found for their platforms and online voices to grow. But externally, the urgent responsibility for viewers and, even more so, the platforms themselves, is just beginning. It’s time to start seeing and supporting marginalised creators online. And for social platforms themselves, The UNSEEN marks a real quagmire ready to be revisited, reformed, and most importantly, seen.
The UNSEEN exhibition launches at Quantas Gallery, Shoreditch on 15th June 2022 and is open to the public from the 16th to 24th. Buy your tickets on Eventbrite, here.
Drinks sponsored by Ace+Freak & Agua De Madre Water Kefir.