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Adult Content Policies: A Textbook Case of Private Censorship

Of the many reasons why social media platforms should resist pressure to “voluntarily” censor their users, one stands out: history shows that they will do it badly, taking down valuable and lawful content in the name of enforcing community standards. The result: practical speech discrimination. 

Facebook’s adult content policy is a textbook example. Since its early days, the platform has banned nearly all forms of nudity. But from day one, it has created reporting processes that conflate mere nudity with sexuality, and sexuality with pornography, and has applied different standards to feminine bodies than to masculine ones.

And the same double standards seem to apply to advertisements. First, the conflation: Facebook’s advertising policy explicitly bans “nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.” Thanks to this policy, an ad from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy promoting regular health checkups, was rejected for violating Facebook’s advertising guidelines “for language that is profane, vulgar, threatening or generates high negative feedback”—the language in question? “You’re so sexy when you’re well.” Now, the double standard: all of the images used as examples of “inappropriate ads” are of women.

The latter inconsistency is particularly galling given that activists have been challenging Facebook’s gender politics for years. Nonetheless, although Facebook says its policies are intended to apply to all genders, the actual application has never been consistent or fair. For example, the company allows hookup apps to advertise, but has banned images of fat women on the grounds that they promote unhealthy behavior (the company apologized after significant press coverage). 

Most recently, journalist Sarah Lacy complained that advertisements for her book—entitled The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug—had been…

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