The uphill battle for artists promoting their work on social media has taken a frustrating turn. In late July, Instagram quietly released a new feature that automatically limits content on the Explore page that the app categorizes as “sensitive,” which includes sexually explicit images, see-through clothes, violence, and regulated substances. Artist Betty Tompkins learned of the platform’s new sensitivity feature quickly: “Word about it spread very fast. I received private messages from many, many people. It is a disaster in the making for artists who deal in what Instagram considers ‘sensitive’ material. It will ghost their work and make it more difficult for them to find their audience. It was also very sneaky. They did it without telling the people who post. That’s not right.”
Users who want to change the new setting have to go through three steps to find the “Limit Sensitive Content” feature under “Settings” and “Account” and then opt-in to posts that the platform thinks “could be upsetting or offensive.” Users are also given the option to limit sensitive content further. While writing this article, Instagram changed the “Limit Sensitive Content” page to be called “Sensitive Content Control,” a nice subtle gaslighting to emphasize that users had the control all along.
Tompkins has a long relationship with censorship. Her work, which sometimes features cropped closeups of sex and genitalia, has been censored for decades in various contexts, including by the French and Japanese governments, more recently it is a known target of the Instagram review team.
Although Instagram’s Community Guidelines state that the platform allows photos of paintings or sculptures that contain nudity, artists are often the target of censorship. Entire websites have emerged to shed light on the unfair removal of artistic content, including the National Coalition Against Censorship’s crowdsourced database of censorship incidents and Don’t Delete Art’s curated selection of censored work. The repercussions of Instagram’s increasing sterilization will undoubtedly further impact artists who rely on the platform to connect with and expand their audience.
Conscious of the scrutiny put on her profile, Tompkins has started to directly address the Instagram review team in her captions. “I found out at a certain point (after my account was restored) that EVERYTHING I post is reviewed.” She explained, adding that the Community Guidelines are vague and unclear. “I certainly didn’t know [the guidelines] until I was invited to a roundtable discussion that Instagram held. Then I looked them up. Here’s what it says: ‘Nudity in photographs of paintings and sculpture is okay.’ No qualifiers. I went through this for nothing, so I speak directly to the Review Team because I want them to look up the Community Guidelines, and I write it at the top of my posts to make sure that they can see it.”
For Tompkins, censorship has had a direct impact on her art. She takes the idea of censorship and turns it on its head, censoring her work better than the censors by writing “censored” over all of the “naughty bits.” So far, her censor pieces have been based off of works banned by governments, but she hasn’t made any Instagram-censored works.
“The problem I have had is that I didn’t track [the Instagram-censored posts],” Tompkins explained. “They took down maybe a dozen images with no notice to me. Then they took down my entire account. Twice. I wish I had tracked them. It would be a fine group to do. The last time a piece was taken down (along with my account) the review team thought it was a photograph, not a painting, thereby punishing me for doing what I do too well.”
Tompkins aptly noted the review teams are anonymous and their role as arbiters of what constitutes artistic content is unfair and unclear: “I don’t know if they know anything about art history or contemporary art. I don’t know if art is important to them.”
“Ghosting” of accounts, as Tompkins put it, can have a serious impact. Artist Aurel Schmidt is in a constant battle to keep her Instagram active: “[my account] has been deleted 4 times, for 6 to 8 months at a time. It was just deleted, or ‘restricted,’ again and is back now. It’s always been out of the blue, not because of any new posts or stories and not because I have violated any (known) terms. When they give it back they send a letter saying ‘we made a mistake’.”
Schmidt’s work toes the line between beautiful and shocking with cheery colors and playful imagery like dolls and rainbows that reveal unexpected sexual content, drugs, and detritus upon closer inspection.
Schmidt is willing to post within the regulations of Instagram, but finds the arbitrary nature of the platform’s censorship to be “sloppy and unfair.” She explained, “The problem for me lies in the failure of their machine to follow their own rules and changing of rules without any accountability to the consumer and worker (of which we are both).”
She added that her issues with Instagram stem in part from the platform’s profiting off of users: “They have made millions of dollars off of us, especially from our ‘sexual content’ and then overnight they decide to delete, edit, or censor it?”
Schmidt argues that the lack of consumer protection on Instagram allows the platform to take advantage of its community as a whole: “They create rules that are purposely vague so they can’t be sued for consumer safety or accountability. There are laws in place to protect consumers and workers in almost every other area except for social media. The platforms profit from our time. They need to be held to the same standards of fairness and quality regulation as other industries. I think in the talk around ‘censorship’ we need to try and think of the big picture and not get caught up in our own personal plights. As a whole, we need to look at these social media companies’ policies and demand accountability even if that means a lawsuit.”
Unfortunately, accountability often only comes from high profile cases of injustice and public outcry. Instagram recently apologized for censoring the poster for director Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Parallel Mothers, which they banned for its depiction of a nipple producing milk. The platform reversed its ban and acknowledged the poster’s “clear artistic content” only after several users reposted the image.
Like Schmidt, artist Reuben Negrón recognizes that the platform is a business. “On the one hand, I’m aware that they are a company, just like any other, trying to appeal to the masses in a way that best benefits their bottom line. That’s Capitalism 101.” Negrón explained, adding, “On the other hand, they have continually touted themselves as a platform for creatives to be seen and heard. Unfortunately, as Instagram continues to evolve, placing greater and greater hurdles for creatives to safely and fairly share their work, we know that image isn’t true.”
Known for his representational watercolors and drawings, Negrón’s work addresses themes of sexuality and identity and often features nude figures that are frequent targets of Instagram censorship. “I have lost track of how many times I’ve had work deleted off the platform even though, in each instance, I was following the Community Guidelines,” he said. “On rare occasions, I have had my work reinstated following a Review Request, but more times than not, the image stays deleted.”
Negrón believes a “Sensitivity filter” could work if Instagram were transparent about why and how it’s implemented. However, he said, “Instagram is notorious for its lack of communication and has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no intention of improving or accurately enforcing its own Community Guidelines…this new “Sensitive Content” filter strikes me as another, more efficient way for Instagram to separate and relegate the content it doesn’t want others to see from the content it wishes to promote.”
The issue with having posts deleted, Negrón said, is that it increases the risk of an account being flagged or shadowbanned, decreasing the visibility of a flagged user’s posts regardless of content. “Shadowbanning puts the onus on the follower to make sure they are actually seeing the content they actively signed up to see when they decided to follow someone’s page,” he explained, adding that censorship can be detrimental to creativity. “It’s a system designed to influence the type of content that is shared, and thereby, influences the type of content that is created…I am constantly questioning whether or not something is going to be deleted or even seen at all. And that kind of doubt, whether it’s admitted or not, is harmful to the act of creation.”
Like Tompkins, Negrón has also faced censorship outside of the virtual sphere. His most-censored work, Chris and Mario, was removed from an exhibition after the building owner “objected to its presence.”
Apart from Instagram, other social media giants are also cracking down on “sensitive” content, and the gray area of what constitutes “sensitive” is continually expanding. Filmmaker and artist Oliver Ressler had his YouTube account suspended for “repeated violations of spams, scams, or commercially deceptive material.” Ressler, whose work addresses political and environmental issues, argued he never violated YouTube’s regulations and that the suspension was pure censorship.
Performance artist Verónica Peña had a Facebook event promoting a virtual performance removed without any warning or explanation. The image (above) is a still from one of the artist’s performances in which she submerges herself nude in a large water tank for several hours while different materials alter the shape of her body. She purposefully chose an image without nudity to promote the performance. She has also had her YouTube account flagged as “age-restricted.”
The deleted Facebook event was created to showcase the artist’s work after her in-person performances were cancelled due to the pandemic. Peña explained, “Daily sumbersions, remaining underwater for hours and inviting others to do so, is part of my creative practice in the search for human harmony. Because of the pandemic, I started to present live audio-visual experiences for the virtual audience. When the Facebook event disappeared, it was frustrating because I couldn’t share the work with an audience. I eventually had to reschedule the performance entirely.”
Out of fear of having her Instagram account deleted, Peña chooses images that will comply with the platform’s regulations and will even blur or digitally alter portions of the artwork she posts. “Being censored hurts because for me performance art is my way of communicating with others, and when art gets censored, I feel that those with power in society are erasing this unique space of individual and collective freedom.” For an artist like Peña, it’s unclear whether photos of performance art with nudity would satisfy Instagram’s Community Guidelines, as they represent neither painting nor sculpture.
Showcasing a nude female body, censorship of Peña’s art raises questions of why male nude bodies are not regulated the same way. “I find tremendously illogical the distinction between female and non-female nipples regarding censorship…Censoring nudity in the arts is silencing the body, and more specifically silencing women.”
Across these platforms, the rules and guidelines are vague and subjective. When it comes to posts of artwork, the issue of subjectivity is amplified. Ultimately, regardless of whether Instagram calls their new feature a setting that “controls” rather than “limits” sensitive imagery, there are major flaws in their arbitrarily-enforced review system, and they have made a decision to quietly and automatically increase the censorship of content for all users.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.