The Gray Market: Why Twitter’s Ban of Political Ads Could Have an Important Impact on Instagram’s Censorship of Artwork (and Other Insights)

Our columnist dissects how a major policy shift at Twitter puts Facebook on the hot seat for its political ads and Instagram art censorship.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks during a press event at CES 2019. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks during a press event at CES 2019. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, assessing how a Big Tech standoff radiates back to the art world…

 

SKIN IN THE GAME

On Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced via tweet thread that his platform would no longer allow political advertising. Scheduled to go into effect on November 22, the new policy puts Dorsey’s platform in direct opposition to Facebook, which last month eliminated its requirement for paid ads to avoid making “deceptive, false, or misleading” statements as long as they originate directly from a political candidate or political party. 

The clash between the two social-media titans assumes special importance for the art world based on events from the previous weeks. Only a few days after Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to Washington, DC, to deliver a lengthy prepared monologue on the supreme importance of unregulated free speech to Georgetown University students (as well as to get dragged in Congress over his in-development cryptocurrency project, Libra), representatives from Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram met with around 20 artists, curators, and members of the National Coalition Against Censorship in a closed-door session in New York to discuss Instagram’s much-maligned content-moderation policies and community guidelines. 

According to Maximilíano Durón of ARTnews, participants included artists Marilyn Minter, Micol Hebron, and Joanne Leah, while painter Betty Tompkins sent a statement to be read aloud during the proceedings. All attendees were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. A company spokesperson clarified that this measure is standard practice for anyone entering Instagram headquarters, not an exception applied to veil this specific event. Press were not invited to attend. 

Chief among the issues discussed during the roundtable was Instagram’s ban on nudity in artworks other than paintings and sculptures. Even this seemingly straightforward (if frustrating) policy has several inconsistencies that have been highlighted in posts made by some of the artists in attendance. For instance, Instagram temporarily removed Tompkins’s account after she posted a photo of one of her sexually explicit “Fuck Paintings” this April. 

Betty Tompkins, Women Words #1 (Watteau), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, New York.

Betty Tompkins, Women Words #1 (Watteau), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, New York.

According to Leah, who appeared on Vox’s Reset podcast last week to discuss the summit, she and Hebron also called out Instagram’s negative fixation on the “female nipple.” The simplest expression of the policy is that photos and videos of topless men are okay, but photos and videos of topless women are not. 

Even setting aside the fact that a global social-media platform is being governed by this exceptionally American attitude toward the human body, it still raises hard, meaningful questions about the rights of transgender and non-binary folks. For example, during their time on the podcast, non-binary model Rain Dove mentioned the confusion of seeing literally the same set of nipples go from “banned” to “permitted” on Instagram after a friend had top surgery. 

Confusion continues to abound with Tompkins’s work, too. Ironically, her Instagram account was suspended again only a few days after the closed-door session between Facebook, Instagram, and the aforementioned members of the arts community. She confirmed in an email to me this weekend that the ban only lasted “2–3 hours,” and that it was triggered because someone thought one of her paintings was a photo. (“First time I have been penalized for doing it too well,” she added wryly.) Still, the experience proves the platform’s leadership will need time to digest what it heard from the summit’s participants. 

I should note that most, if not all, of those attendees who have spoken to the press agreed that they believe Facebook and Instagram are genuinely trying to listen, learn, and do better. But A National Coalition Against Censorship rep told my colleague Caroline Goldstein that, after the meeting, “the only solid commitment made by Facebook was its intention to issue clarification around its guidelines that regulate what appears in searches and hashtags.” Leah echoed this takeaway on Reset, noting that Facebook and Instagram “did promise that the [community] guidelines would evolve… but they didn’t say when and how.” 

So how do policies about artistic nudes on Instagram connect to policies about political advertising on Facebook and Twitter? More directly than it might seem at first.  

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping. Photo by Artyom IvanovTASS/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping. Photo by Artyom IvanovTASS/Getty Images.

FALSE EQUIVALENCE

In Zuckerberg’s earlier-mentioned Georgetown address, he declared, “More people being able to share their experiences and perspectives has always been necessary to build a more inclusive society.” He also contended he “[doesn’t] think it’s right” that social-media platforms be tasked with the power and responsibility of judging what content should be protected by the right to free speech online. 

But both of these statements referred to Facebook’s decision to allow political candidates and parties to spew outright lies in ads seen by thousands upon thousands of people. Apparently, he does not think the same open-minded standard should apply to Instagram when artists want to post work that includes the “female nipple” and/or “fully-nude buttocks,” or when nonbinary users simply want to post the same kinds of selfies or photos of those close to them as others who self-identify as one of the traditional genders. 

Seems a tad inconsistent, no? It’s sort of like hearing someone say that they love autumn but hate the lower temperature and shorter days. After all, what could more directly satisfy “more people being able to share their experiences and perspectives” than these types of posts? 

If you think that statement sounds overly simplistic, it may be. But it’s a valid response in the extreme terms that Zuckerberg has been using to frame the debate about freedom of expression on the social-media colossus he co-founded and chairs. Tech journalist par excellence Kara Swisher argued in the New York Times that his Georgetown monologue boiled free speech down to “an either-or choice—either we have it, or we’re China.” 

In this sense, Facebook’s decision to continue running misleading or false political ads gives the lie to its squishy rhetoric about the urgency of protecting First Amendment rights for the sake of inclusiveness, unity, and connecting people. (Rani Molla at The Verge reported that Zuckerberg used the word “together” 14 times in his 40-minute address.) It reminds us again that Facebook is first and foremost a business. And commerce is the only lens through which we can reconcile its decision to unleash politicians’ worst impulses for cash while simultaneously locking down artists and marginalized groups’ best intentions for the supposed good of “the community.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

TOO BIG TO BAIL?

At bottom, the difference between these two situations is scale. On Facebook’s third-quarter earnings call last Wednesday, Zuckerberg partly used his prepared remarks to discount the notion that greed was shaping the platform’s hands-off policy toward campaign ads, saying that “ads from politicians will be less than 0.5 percent of our revenue next year.” Given how much blowback it’s received for the policy, he implied, why would the company compromise itself for so little upside?

But as Josh Constine at Techcrunch noted, Facebook’s third-quarter revenue of $66 billion means that the company might make between $330 million and $400 million from ads run by candidates alone next year. A Facebook spokesperson also confirmed after the call that the 0.5 percent number did not count spending by PACs or political parties on so-called “issue ads,” i.e. those about specific political issues rather than specific candidates running for office. Which in turn means Facebook likely expects to rake in hundreds of millions more from its ad policy in the aggregate. 

(For comparison, Constine reports that Twitter made only around $3 million, or about 0.1 percent of its annual revenue in 2018, from ads connected to that year’s midterm elections.) 

The point here isn’t to argue that Facebook’s gain from political ads is bigger than it claims. Instead, the point is to surface the calculus it uses to make decisions about what content to allow, and what content to ban. The simple truth is that Facebook and Instagram’s internal projections have undoubtedly been a factor in shaping their current policies on nudity and artwork. If too many people could accuse either platform of harboring content that could be construed as porn with even a shred of credibility, it could be a fiasco for the bottom line. 

But defining the line between artwork and pornography has always been a difficult process, full of complex questions that deserve serious deliberation. So too is the task of parsing the intangible costs of amplifying political speech for a fee. Although Twitter clearly stands to lose much less money than Facebook by rejecting political ads, it has now joined LinkedIn, Pinterest, and TikTok in deciding that human interests and democratic ideals outweigh this particular revenue stream. 

Here’s hoping that Facebook and Instagram can do some similarly mature thinking while they re-evaluate their content-moderation policies for art and nudity. But if they don’t, remember Zuckerberg’s attitude toward political advertising, as well as what it suggests about cause and effect: that he and his confidantes would rather have overly conservative community guidelines than even modestly declining profits. 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: cash rules everything around us, even when we’re online.


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