Facebook's vague rulebook helps only the creeps

Ryan McGinley's India (Coyote), 2010

Comic artist (and BB contributor) Wendy Pini was issued a second ban by Facebook today after posting a widely-shared photo to her wall. She was told that she faces permanent expulsion if it happens again—despite the social network's recent assurances that it only intends to block pornographic content, not legitimate artwork.

The suspension comes just days after Facebook temporarily banned The New Yorker over a cartoon depicting the biblical Eve's dot-nipples. Last month saw Pini's own first warning for posting a painting of Bunchh, an androgynous character whose ambigiously-gendered blue cartoon boobs ran afoul of the social network's ambigiously-defined porn policy.

Her latest troubles, however, come over something to be found widely at Facebook: the popular photography of Ryan McGinley, whose artwork may be seen from San Francisco galleries to New York art blogs.

"I know my own work is sexy, but this wasn't something I'd made. It's shared everywhere," Pini said. "What this is is someone out there targeting me, and Facebook helping them."

The latest warning message received by Pini.

The New Yorker's Robert Mankoff reported last week on how the magazine was temporarily banned from Facebook after posting Mick Stevens' Garden of Eden 'toon.

The two female dots, they were informed, were the problem: Adam's dots were just fine.

"Now, we could have fought the ruling on technical grounds, because, let's face it, these female nips, by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how prurient, are just not bulging," Mankoff wrote, referring to Facebook's suggestion that the dots' 'bulging' quality made them unacceptably pornographic. "But rather than fight the battle of the bulge, let's point out, that while female nipple bulging, or F.N.B. for short, is a potentially serious problem, with as yet no known cure, it also has no known victims. That is, unless you count freedom of expression, common sense, and humor."

The Daily Beast recently ran a gallery of Facebook-banned cartoons, including those from Pini and Stevens.

Earlier this year, Gawker's Adrian Chen reported on these and other absurd rules at Facebook, which permits images of crushed human heads while clamping down on suggestive depictions of female sexuality.

Facebook's zealousness in scrubbing users' content has led to a series of uproars. Last April, they deleted an innocent gay kiss and were accused of homophobia; a few months before that, the removal of a nude drawing sparked the art world's ire. Most recently, angry "lactivists" have been staging protests over Facebook's deletion of breast-feeding photos.

These censorship scandals haven't been helped by Facebook's opacity regarding its content moderation process. Whenever Facebook deletes an image it deems objectionable, it refers the offending user to its rambling Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. That policy is vague when it comes to content moderation, and probably intentionally so. If users knew exactly what criteria was being used to judge their content, they could hold Facebook to them. It would be clear what Facebook was choosing to censor according to its policies, and what amounted to arbitrary censorship."

— Adrian Chen

Also banned, perhaps, at Facebook: anything depicting a sexual fetish, breastfeeding mothers, or cameltoe.

The most disturbing thing, Pini says, is that the photo for which she was warned Wednesday was merely shared from another person's own wall, where it still remains.

The problem with the guidelines is not only that they are evasively defined, but that they present an opportunity for malicious users to target their Internet enemies anonymously.

Enforced by Facebook's zero-tolerant bureaucracy at any troll's behest, discriminatory "standards" such as "bulging female nipples" become a speech-chilling limitation on what may be said and shared at Facebook.

Trying to figure out the specifics of Facebook's enforcement policies has even become something of a game, with The Guardian's Rowan Davies crowdsourcing a test of exactly what kind of breastfeeding photos it considers too smutty to stay up.

When challenged, Facebook only doubles down on vagueness: its current nudity policy is now completely devoid of any specifics that artists such as Pini and Stevens could work with—but ample opportunity for troublemakers to steer Facebook's outsourced moderation machine against them.

"Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and imposes limitations on the display of nudity. At the same time, we aspire to respect people's right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding."

— Facebook

"There's no right to face my accuser," Pini said. "I know there are people out there who don't like me. But I don't think they should be able to use Facebook like this to get at me. And this story isn't just about me. It's
about everyone who uses Facebook to promote themselves and their work. If anonymous complaints can shut you down, that's interference with your livelihood."

Wendy Pini is co-creator of Elfquest, the latest chapter of which is published weekly here at Boing Boing