Many movements have risen on social media, using the connective power of platforms like Twitter and Facebook to amplify marginalized voices. But what happens when a movement’s target is the social media platform itself? The push to allow women to go topless dates as far back as decades ago, when organizers began advocating for cities to remove restrictions on women in public space. But it picked up steam on social media with a 2014 documentary by the actor and activist Lina Esco that challenged Instagram to loosen its restrictions on images of topless women.
The film spawned a popular hashtag, #freethenipple. The logic was simple: If men can be topless in photos on Instagram, why can’t women? Celebrities soon got involved. Late night host Chelsea Handler mimicked a pose of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had posed shirtless on a horse, only to have her image removed from Instagram. Model Chrissy Teigen similarly challenged the platform by posting a topless spread from W magazine, which was also removed. The momentum seemed impactful. For a moment in 2014, the movement to end the censorship of women’s bodies seemed to play a significant role in public discourse. And then, as many conversations on social media do, it just faded away.
But recently, I’ve noticed what seems like an increase of uncensored images on Instagram, which gave me hope that, perhaps quietly, the platform had changed its tune. Several people I asked said that they’d also noticed what felt like they’d begun seeing more nudity on Instagram. Despite that anecdotal confirmation, however, a rep for Instagram assured me that nothing about the company’s policy has changed. Images of female nudity, specifically bare breasts, will be removed unless they fall into a very specific set of categories. The company says it restricts some images of women’s breasts if they include nipples, but allows images of women breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring, or where the specific social context is clear.
Rik Bracho, the founder and editor-in-chief of the erotic magazine PMag, which during once had its account deleted over images of nudity, said in an email that he’s noticed what seems like a slight shift in how many photos seem to come down. But it still feels like there isn’t enough clarity around the issue, he said.
How has Instagram’s nudity policy affected your account?
Rik Bracho: The policy on nudity is something we do understand and respect, mainly because sensitive content is an important issue, and minors should not have access to it. But in reality, it’s mostly blurred lines when we talk about sensitive content, because sometimes Instagram (or users who report) [target] photos where there’s nothing to censor, or photos that are artistic and beautiful, but in some other accounts [they] are permitted for some reason.
Has it impacted your page directly?
RB: In the past, we’ve had our account closed entirely. The worst case was when we had 90K followers, and suddenly they closed the account and everything was lost, we had to start all over again… We are a publication for adults only, and we do understand and take care of our content, we try to censor our photos in the best possible way, without having to interfere or ruin the artist’s work, but the sad part is that censorship only downgrades the beauty of the images.
Imagine walking into a museum, and wherever there’s nudity, the museum censors the genitals, nipples and any graphic content… What an awful experience that would be, right?
What do you think of the policy overall?
RB: I think the more we censor the human body, the more we generate morbidity. We sexualize and objectify because we are used to feeling guilty of seeing the human body in its most natural state: nude.
Why does @instagram still shame the body of the womxn? Clearly this series @tony_gum and I shot for her Art Basel exhibition has the purpose of returning to the rööts of the matriarchy and empowering the Earth. They should not ban our nipples from being shown if they don't do the same 4 men. #Xhosa #35mm #freethenipple #killthepatriarchy
Social media platforms continue to play an outsized role in our everyday lives. The president of the United States uses Twitter to announce major policy changes, and to harangue his detractors. Influencers on sites like Instagram can generate millions of dollars off their audiences by promoting brands in sponsored posts. Increasingly, incidents of police misconduct find their way on Facebook or Youtube before departments make any public statements.
Social media companies wield an incredible amount of power. Years after what seems like the #freethenipple campaign’s peak, there is not much clarity in terms of what, if anything, Instagram should do to both provide a safe environment for everyone, as it says its nudity policy is intended to do, as well as offer creators a sense of artistic freedom.
Sarah Myers West, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s project Onlinecensorship.org, is one of the authors of a forthcoming paper that evaluates movements on social media using the #freethenipple campaign as a main case study. One of the paper’s conclusions, she told me over email, was that a user’s visibility plays a direct role in whether or not their content is restored. This means that users with a big enough platform, typically celebrities, are most likely to get the company's attention. It’s not especially surprising: Twitter, for example, is known to quickly respond to claims of harassment when they involve celebrities.
Have you see any other examples of users petitioning a platform to modify, or at least be more open, about their moderation policies?
Sarah Myers West: Definitely. One thing to note is the wide range of users who rallied under the free the nipple campaign - it brought together breastfeeding mothers, activists for gender equality, breast cancer survivors, the trans community, among others over the years - so on its own it's not a singular campaign but a protest that involved a diverse coalition of people.
Another great example is the #MyNameIs campaign, which petitioned Facebook to change its Real Name policy - they engaged in both online and offline protests, taking it straight to Facebook's headquarters in order to seek policy change. And again, it involved an incredibly diverse group of people.
At Onlinecensorship.org, we also collect accounts nearly every day from users who are petitioning platforms as individual users to modify their moderation policies. It's become a widespread phenomenon.
With a movement like #freethenipple, there seems to have been widespread support. Celebrities with major influence even got on board. Does it send a message that Instagram ultimately did little in response?
SMW: This campaign has been going on since at least 2007 (even longer if you look at platforms outside the Facebook family), and while there has been some movement, the underlying policy hasn't substantively changed. The most significant shift came in mid-2014, when Facebook changed its policy to allow exceptions for breastfeeding mothers and images of mastectomy scarring - but people had been protesting the policy for years before that and have continued in the years since.
Another factor seems to be how the platform itself evolved, with the advent of Stories. Do these features on social platforms, influenced by Snapchat's disappearing messages, change the nature of the conversation around content moderation?
SMW: I'm not sure that they change the nature of the conversation - if it were really harmful content, the ephemerality wouldn't change the harm, and people can still take screenshots. But what it does change is the context for the content moderation process, since images posted through Stories or on Snapchat disappear so quickly. Most content moderation works through flagging - another users reports a piece of content for supposedly violating a policy, then it goes into a queue where it is reviewed and evaluated by a team of content moderators who decide whether or not to take action.
There is a button to report content in Stories, but I would imagine that time constraint would likely change how Instagram or Snapchat handle the content.
In a direct message, the owner of the account @anunaka, which last week posted an uncensored image of a topless woman, said they too have noticed fewer images coming down. “Yeah I've definitely noticed less posts with women’s boobs are getting put down,” they wrote. However, a week later, the image was taken down, they told me in a message: “Oo they removed it.”