#shadowbanned: a social media war on women's bodies
I need to start off this blog with a warning. The video below features some highly sensitive content - content that has been deemed so explicit and dangerous that facebook and Instagram have decided that it cannot be advertised on social media.
Should you wish to proceed to viewing the video below, please be aware that you are about to be subjected to 16 seconds of what facebook considers to be content that violates community standards. You have been warned.
If you've made it this far, then you have survived viewing our "sexually provocative"content, featuring "excessive skin", that is "overly suggestive" and "sensitive" in nature, and therefore not suitable to be promoted on social media. Simply put, you have just watched a group of mainly women exercising in shorts, singlet tops, and crop tops.
LET'S TALK BUSINESS
Let me introduce myself. My name is Michelle Shimmy, and when I'm not busy creating "adult content" like the video you just watched, I'm flat out running my small business as best I can, with my sister/business partner Maddie.
Together, we own the Pole Dance Academy, which we opened in 2009 and now has grown to four studios in Sydney, Australia. We run pole dance classes for women (and a small number of men) of all ages. It's a supportive, inclusive and friendly environment and we are very proud of our studios.
A huge part of running a small business is marketing to potential new customers. Like any other small business, we use social media to run paid promotions to reach new customers.
At least, we used to.
Earlier this week, I uploaded our video to the Pole Dance Academy instagram. I wanted to run a paid promotion on Instagram for my studio, which offers lessons in the perfectly legitimate and legal activity of pole dancing. We had made the post as G-rated as we could. No high heels, no overtly sexy dancing, just some pole fitness moves, barefoot and in shorts.
I created my Instagram post, carefully not using any hashtags, knowing full well that the pole dance community had already been targeted by Instagram through the banning of any pole dance related hashtags.
When I read the notification, I felt overwhelmed with frustration. My promotion was not approved. When I read the text of the notification, I felt overwhelmed with anger.
"This ad isn't running because it is sexually provocative or overly suggestive (e.g. text, images or videos depicting excessive skin, provocative dancing, nudity, certain medical diagrams or sexual acts). This kind of material is sensitive in nature. To learn more and see examples, view our Advertising Policies."
Let us be clear: the video I posted featured some adult women in shorts and sleeveless tops exercising. Yes, they were pole dancing in shorts, worn because bare skin is necessary for grip. But there was nothing provocative or sexual about it.
What exactly is inappropriate? Is dancing inappropriate? Are shorts inappropriate? Are women inappropriate?
So of course, in order to "learn more", I clicked on the link to view the Advertising Policies. I was taken to the facebook page for Advertising Policies, specifically to the section for Adult Content. Aside from looking like it was thrown together in ten minutes by an intern using screenshots of stock images, it is also one of the most misogynistic and sexist pieces of rubbish I've read in a long time (and I read a lot).
WOMEN ARE INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT
I would like to take a moment to point out that according to the above policy on "Adult Content", the examples of "non-compliant" images include:
"implied" female nudity in art, where bare shoulders, arms and legs are visible (nevermind that bare arms, legs and shoulders are perfectly acceptable in almost all walks of life);
a woman lying down, covered except for her legs and shoulders (because apparently to lie down when female is a sexually suggestive act);
an image of a fully-clothed woman in possession of two female breasts, most of which are covered, leaning slightly forward (because to be female and to be in possession of female body parts is again inherently sexually suggestive even when you are fully clothed and standing up);
a woman eating a banana, which is apparently just as sexually provocative an act AS AN ACTUAL PHOTO OF TWO PEOPLE NAKED AND IN BED UNDER SHEETS (which is also not even particularly provocative, for heaven's sake).
However, lest they be accused of sexism by pesky feminazis, facebook has included an example of a man being non-compliant. See below - naughty little vixen, in the act of undressing, taking his shirt off to provocatively reveal in a non-compliant manner his otherwise compliant male nipples. Oh, and also a statue of a naked man is ok too.
So, to summarise, according to this policy - if you are a woman with all your womanly bits covered, and you are standing, lying down, eating, dancing, moving or doing anything that can somehow be labelled by someone (likely a man) as "provocative" or "suggestive", then you are non-compliant. If you are a man, so long as you don't actually look like you are actually about to undress and get naked, then you're probably going to be ok.
Of course I appealed. I was told I would have an answer in 24 hours. I waited a week, gave up and deleted the post. I reposted it today. It was again disapproved. I have appealed. I await the judgment of our Social Media Overlords.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
The short answer seems to be: FOSTA/SESTA. The FOSTA bill, which became the SESTA Act, is US legislation signed into effect by none other than the President of the United States, Donald Trump himself (it still seems surreal and sickening to use President and Donald Trump together, so yeah, thanks for that, America).
This legislation targets online platforms (like Instagram and facebook, but also Craig's List and any other online carrier platform. It makes those platforms responsible for any user content that relates to sex work. The idea behind the law is that it will help to fight sex trafficking.
Fighting sex trafficking is of course an admirable aim. But using the SESTA/FOSTA legislation as a weapon in that war is basically like using a blow torch to light a candle. It means that anyone who provides adult services on a consensual basis is put at greater risk, as they are unable to use online platforms to screen clients and to protect their own identities.
Since the introduction of the new law, online platforms have begun purging content and users that could put them at risk of breaching the new laws. Click here to read more about it.
WHAT IS SHADOW BANNING?
Earlier this year, Instagram altered its algorithms to demote content that it deemed to be “inappropriate”, but which did not actually violate its community guidelines. Users posting such "inappropriate" content began to notice that their engagement had dropped off, and that their content could not be found by searching the hashtags they had used. Instagram offered no warning before shadow banning an account, and there were no guidelines or clarification surrounding the meaning of "inappropriate".
The pole dance community suddenly found that many hashtags relating to pole dance were banned. I found that the hashtag we use at my studio, #poledanceacademy, was banned. Even the #pd______ hashtags we use as a naming protocol for pole moves were banned (see #pdseahorse and #pdpegasus below, which remained banned at the date of writing this blog).
So in response, we the pole dancers organised ourselves, created a petition and launched a PR campaign assault against instagram. And believe it or not, Instagram apologised for incorrectly banning pole dance-related hashtags!
We were quite pleased with ourselves until we realised that the apology changed nothing and we were still shadow banned.
SO WHO CARES?
So why do we care about these changes? Won't it just mean less nudity and sexualised content on Instagram? Is that really such a bad thing?
Well, the answer is a little tricky. Yes, it will mean less nudity and semi-nudity on social media. Whether or not that is a bad thing depends on your perspective. Personally, seeing human skin does not offend me, unless of course, it comes in the form of an unsolicited dick pic in my inbox (on a side note, it's interesting to note that when one receives a dick pic on instagram, there is no option to report the dick pic. The only option is to block the sender. It seems that when it comes to unsolicited dick pics from strangers in your inbox, Instagram is powerless to take action. But when it comes to female skin, Instagram has all the bot-creating technology at its fingertips to fight back. But I digress...)
Of course, the people most likely to be affected by Instagram's blanket and arbitrary "shadow banning" of female skin (and actual banning when it comes to advertising) are those that are currently living in female skin, i.e. women. Women who want to dance, jump, lie down, stand up, eat a banana, have boobs, wear bikinis, post a selfie and do all the things that are perfectly legal harmless and normal for us to do.
It feels like women are being punished for being women, living in female bodies, doing things that women do, and posting about it on Instagram.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It also impacts disproportionately on small businesses, like mine, who market services and products to women. How do you market products and services aimed at women, like pole dance classes, without featuring women's bodies in a "non-compliant" way, when you've been told in the advertising policy that women's bodies are non-compliant when seated, standing, lying down, dancing or eating in a "provocative" or "suggestive" way?
It also impacts on body positivity pages, who post pictures of women of all shapes and sizes with a view to dismantling and challenging body stereotypes of how women should look, by providing an alternative view of female bodies from that which we are used to seeing in mainstream media.
It impacts on trans communities, who find themselves accused of soliciting sexual services simply by the act of posting pictures of trans people (follow Salty and click here to learn more about their story).
It impacts artists like Exotic Cancer, who creates artwork that depicts in cartoon-like fashion the lives of strippers, and who has had her account taken down and her posts removed on a number of occasions, even though she does not actually post any photographs of women, just artworks.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Frankly, it feels a little like we're going backwards. It's very demoralising and frustrating. As an Australian living in Australia, it also seems unfair that the entire social media world is now subject to the moral whims of US-based companies, who get to dictate the terms by which we live our online lives, at the behest of an unstable and unreasonable President. It really is absurdly Kafkaesque.
In addition, as an adult, I find it incredibly patronising and ridiculous that facebook is now the moral gatekeeper of the images I am allowed to view on social media. If facebook decides that women in bikinis and lingerie are too sexual for facebook ads, then it means I can no longer view ads for bikinis and lingerie on social media, in the same way that I can no longer market my pole dance studio to adult women on social media.
I don't know what the answer is, other than to keep making noise, to keep up the pressure on Instagram to revise its inherently sexist policies. As pole dancers, that's exactly what we plan to do. Stay tuned for more info on how you can get involved in the next steps.
Don't let the bastards grind you down.
Michelle Shimmy xxx