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Is Instagram getting the balance right with its page purge - or is it censoring users?

Instagram has been heavy-handedly wielding the suspension hammer over users who stray from its terms of service with no intention of reactivating their accounts, following a new account-disabling policy.

More than 30 meme accounts unsuspectingly faced bans during a mass expulsion campaign last month. The app’s administrators flagged accounts for a broad range of violations including ‘objectionable content’ to the sale of accounts between users, deactivated usernames and verification services.

The users behind these accounts had a combined follower count of approximately 3m, and accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars through ad revenue and other sponsored content.

For many of these account owners, the money earned went toward personal funds like college tuition for user @autist, who made more than $30,000 from his page and had a following of over 529,000 followers.

Repercussions were the same for Belle Delphine, a popular cosplayer who started bottling and selling her own bathwater to her 4.5m followers – an action meant to show that Instagram means business when it comes to its guidelines for use.

These closures were foreshadowed with the suspension of @ComedySlam, an account that earned 17-year-old Declan Mortimer more than 11 million followers and $200,000 before being shut down just a few days after Christmas.

But even that wasn’t the first instance of censorship on the platform, or social media apps in general. On December 17, 2018, Tumblr announced that it would remove all adult content from its site after providing a safe space for nude, NSFW and raunchy fanfiction blogs for more than a decade. Frequent users dubbed it the “Tumblocalypse”; the beginning of the end.

Since then, the line between guideline violations and censorship is fuzzier, as instances of post and account removals and limitations across Instagram and Facebook alike have gone up.

On the one hand, Facebook banned 2.2 billion fake accounts in the first half of 2019, and has made efforts to ban “dangerous individuals” or inflammatory, extremist users such as InfoWars boss Alex Jones. But on the otherhand, it also flagged female-first shaving company Billie’s Fourth of July ad featuring female body hair as adult content and rejected any boosting of the video on its platform.

“Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to show they’re taking steps to tighten up their policies on a whole host of issues; everything from their handling off data, platform safety, their effect on mental health, young people, to name but a few,” said Oliver Yonchev, managing director of Social Chain, to The Drum.

He added: “As Facebook touches billions of people’s lives every day, their role in society is of such significance that they have to take reasonable steps to assure, and in some cases regain the trust of users, shareholders, advertisers and governments around the world.” 

Similarly, Instagram has had confusion and subsequent outrage over its inconsistency in its nudity guidelines that allow risqué posts from influencers but will terminate the accounts of adult stars without little to no warning – but users aren’t going down without a fight.

After a Change.org petition received 12,000 signatures within a week’s time, United Pole Artists (UPA), Pole Dance Nation and other people associated with the industry have joined together to combat what they deem to be sexist and discriminatory burying of pole-related content within Instagram’s algorithm system, and defined as "...content [that] may not meet Instagram's community guidelines."

Almost all posts tagged with #poledancing and #polefitness were met with this reasoning, which has since resulted in outrage from the aforementioned associations.

Annemarie Davies, the founder and chief executive of UPA, said: "Our community is under attack, yes, but there is an even bigger issue here in terms of how this scenario plays out for not only pole practitioners, but for all social media users. Who gets to define us and how? Instagram needs to update their algorithms – stop hiding pole hashtags and also to stop policing body positivity hashtags, and sex worker hashtags as well. 

“The global hashtags lockdown seems to a be a trickle-down effect per the US FOSTA-SESTA bill – but banning our hashtags because they conflict with a nonsensical, vaguely defined, puritanical view of 'community standards' is just plain discriminatory."

The US FOSTA-SESTA bill, otherwise known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, was set in place by President Donald J. Trump as a way to curb online sex trafficking. However, the bill poses the condition that platforms would be responsible for the ads promoting prostitution at any capacity, so the qualifications surrounding this potential violation have become muddied and unclear, often objectifying posts that are not meant to be inherently sexual.

“Any form of censorship on platform has to be treated with extreme sensitivity,” Yonchev said. “That said, accountability is needed and steps should be taken to ensure a safe environment for users, advertisers and content right holders.

 “I don’t believe Instagram should take a zero tolerance stance, but one that comes with a user warning. With an accelerated policy crackdown, a more robust appeal process also needs to be in place, to ensure fairness for creators and reverse decisions that could be deemed as unfair. Secondly the introduction of a very clear and simple 'this is what you can and can’t do' when you sign up. The small print isn’t read by most so a simple five things you need to know about creating content at signup would help in the long term.”

Still, pushback over these standards has been a battle forged for years – it was not until 2015, five years after its creation, that the app allowed pictures of post-mastectomy scarring and breastfeeding without them being considered violations.

"We want Instagram to respect everyone on Instagram – as they advise us to do,” said UK male pole champion and instructor Dan Rosen, who boasts a following of 56,000 followers. “Stop discriminating against us, unblock all pole dance related hashtags and review their practices. We want Instagram to be a safe place to share inspiration and expression for all people – as is their stated mission.'' 

Nevertheless, controversy and all, Instagram is still running strong with approximately 500 million active users a day and a projected revenue of $14bn. 

“Social media is an integral part of society,” Yonchev said. “For its many societal flaws, social media is how ideas are shared. Many learn, communicate and stay connected with their communities, so its value outweighs any issues people have over policy guidelines. We value what we get out the platform, more than minor amends to its rules.”

Even with flack over its contentious community guidelines and subsequent suspensions of accounts, Instagram continues to toe the line with its plans to diminish the ‘like’ factor by disabling users’ ability to see the number of likes on other people’s posts. This feature appears to be on the same track as VSCO, which is a photo-posting app without comment or like system at all. 

Featured by The Drum

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