An Open Letter from Dissolve to the Spambots at Facebook
When a pair of nipples meets the algorithms of Silicon Valley, issues of power and control inevitably come to the surface: control over circulation, over the social distribution of stories and histories, and over the ways we engage with and allow for non-binary identities. Ultimately, this control is entrusted to—and exercised by—those tech corporations, whose subjective interpretations and vast influence allow them to set the standard by which the rest of us live.
Right after the release of our latest issue on the theme of Cartographies, one of the articles came under unusual scrutiny by Facebook. When Halim Badawi shared his article “La memoria rosa” on Colombia’s Arkhé: Latin American Art Archive’s queer archive (published in both Spanish and English), he received a notification from Facebook that his post had been deleted, because it looked like spam. The automatic notification asked him to check his inbox for more information. The notification click-through link, “Why was your publication deleted,” explains that, “We deleted this publication because it looks like it could be spam. If you published it and you believe it is not spam, let us know.” He, of course, checked the box—not spam.
The case has apparently been closed, yet we remain blocked from reposting his article on Facebook; our only option has become to either delete the article or leave it as is at the zero circulation mark.
This is the first time that any publication made by either Dissolve or its contributors has been flagged as spam. Badawi’s article follows the same format as the majority of those we have published over the past year, many of which have also dealt with sexuality and gender. Knowing that, the questions are obvious: why was the article singled out? What differentiates this post from others?
The initial post features a partial version of an image, shown above, from Badawi’s article: a picture from the personal archives of Gaby Ángel Callejas, a trans woman whose archive is included in the preservation efforts of the Arkhé Foundation. In the picture, one sees Gaby’s nipples as she poses for a photograph at a drag costume party documented by her friends. The nipples, a part of the body that has repeatedly raised controversy over censorship on the web, confront the spectator with the question of Gaby’s trans body’s identity. Feminists, notably the collective Femmen, have raised the issue of the censorship of female nipples vis-á-vis the openly accepted male nipple, as well as the mainstream media’s hypersexualization and objectification of the female nipple.
Facebook has groups such as “Tetas y Culos” (Tits and Asses), or “Tetas y Culos de Todas Partes del Mundo” (Tits and Asses from All Over the World), where even if nipples themselves are not necessarily visible, the objectification of the female body is overtly intentional. Yet, the nipple of a trans woman, a body that doesn’t quite fit the binary gender standards that we’re used to, is not acceptable, even when the intent of the image is not to sexually objectify the body. In the photograph from Arkhe’s collection, the nipples—if we confine ourselves to the “biological” rhetoric these virtual platforms tend to use—are the nipples of a male body and, therefore, would not usually fall under censorship.
The rules of social online spaces often seem to revolve around what arouses male desire; they solidify the masculine gaze and reiterate its power through our social platforms. But in this instance, the subject may not be seen as an “accepted” source of male visual pleasure. To what extent is the problem with the nipples, or the fact that they are Trans nipples?
When a trans nipple is shown on a picture, a nipple that doesn’t fall to either side of the male-female binary of bodies in social spaces, the anxiety of this breakdown takes over.
According to Facebook’s community norms, as Badawi argued in response:
“Women can only show their breasts when they have cancer or when they are breastfeeding their babies, which is allowed by Facebook since it still considers, based on an outdated sexist ideology, that maternity is the ultimate act in a woman’s life, when she fulfils the ultimate potential of her life, predestined by traditional gender roles, morality and habits, considering everything around maternity pure and beautiful, both morally and spiritually. But if a woman wishes to show her breast because she has no issues with her body or because she considers herself equal to men—a being with the same rights—Facebook considers it incorrect and censors it without further consideration. Well, the debate I propose is the following: what happens to bodies that don’t fit the most traditional standards of the feminine or the masculine? What happens with trans, intersex, androgynous bodies? What happens to those bodies where the biological difference between a nipple and a breast is not as obvious? This isn’t just any other debate; it’s a question of equality and justice.”
Beyond this, Facebook’s standards allow for “photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.” 
In the case of the photo documents from Arkhé’s queer archive, Badawi’s article points to the fact that archival material about queer and trans lives is frequently excluded from traditional art institutions under the coding of non-normative sexualities and genders as “lewd” and “pornographic.” Arkhé is unique in Colombia as treating these materials as important cultural and historical documents—as art.
The irony of Badawi’s article being cast as “spam” lies in how well-attuned he is to the reluctance of conventional institutions to preserve LGBTQ patrimony. It is not an easy challenge to meet. Colombia’s photographic documentation of the pre–1970s trans community is already lost to history. “Public institutions are fundamental in the collective transformation of the country, and they must advance at the pace of the contexts they are part of,” writes Badawi.
It is critical for us all to contend with these standards and to remember what is at stake when we leave the dissemination of stories and information to tech giants—when we as artists and publishers rely on social media moguls for our viewers and readers to reach us. This is particularly true when many of these corporations continue to espouse the utopian promise of the internet as a free platform and, in fact, opt to hide behind phrases that have become more marketing concept than mission statement: freedom of information, net neutrality, or the purported leveling of hierarchies. We hope that the social platforms, which daily mediate our lives through interaction with a global screen, understand and reflect the desires and hopes of its most vulnerable users.
When today’s social and cultural archives are being forged in the sharing economy of Facebook news feeds—as our own role in these systems becomes more removed and the mechanisms behind them more automatic and opaque—Dissolve asks that Facebook attend to the particularities of its users’ individualities. The binaries that have long defined our political and social world—man vs. woman, straight vs. gay, good vs. evil, democracy vs. the-rest-of-the-world—ignore the complexities of the ways in which we navigate our existence in different contexts, at different times, and with different people. The problem with this binary way of thinking is that is doesn’t truly allow for difference, or for the open discussion of what equality could look like under the acceptance of these differences.
Badawi’s case does not stand alone. It is similar to one brought up recently by San Francisco’s Trans community when Facebook demanded the use of everyone’s “real” name on its platform, denying the existence of multiple identities that are used with family, friends, or in the workplace—especially for those whose “real” name doesn’t reflect who they feel they are, or puts them in danger. This obsession over the “real”—usually informed by biological visions of what is natural and what is not—normalizes the ideologies that separate us, and further frustrates our attempts to expand traditional and oppressive notions of gender and sexuality.
It is the responsibility of social media and technology companies like Facebook to open to the public the processes of censorship, circulation, and the sharing of histories through image and text; to create a transparent and democratic system for the determination of those standards; and to provide a place for the minority voices and perspectives of its users.
Dissolve is a volunteer-run online arts publication. Its mission is to be an open space where arts criticism and commentary is collaborative, personal, performative, unexpected, and divisive.
Facebook Community Standards, accessed September 24, 2017. https://m.facebook.com/communitystandards/encouraging-respectful-behavior/ ↩
Adult Nudity & Sexual Activity. People sometimes share content containing nudity for reasons like awareness campaigns or artistic projects. We restrict the display of nudity and sexual activity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content - particularly because of their cultural background or age. In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards.
We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but our intent is to allow images that are shared for medical or health purposes. We also allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.Facebook Community Standards, accessed September 24, 2017. https://m.facebook.com/communitystandards/encouraging-respectful-behavior/. ↩