Censorship, Content Moderation and Social Media

Censorship, General Interest, LGBTQIA+, Technology

By: Jane’a Johnson

“I want a president” is a famous poem in some circles. It is a sacrosanct work in others, an emblem of an angry generation reeling from the AIDS epidemic, environmental degradation and trickle-down economics. Written by Zoe Leonard in 1992, it describes the desire for a different kind of world than the one she inhabits, and it was partly inspired by Eileen Myles’ write-in campaign for president 1991-1992 election. Myles is herself also an artist and published poet, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012.

The poem was posted to the lgbt_history Instagram on January 21st of this year, and promptly taken down based on rules content moderation. The poem’s first few lines read:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person
with aids for president and I want a fag for
vice president and I want someone with no
health insurance and I want someone who grew
up in a place where the earth is so saturated
with toxic waste that they didn’t have a
choice about getting leukemia. I want a
president that had an abortion at sixteen and
I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two
evils and I want a president who lost their
last lover to aids, who still sees that in
their eyes every time they lay down to rest.

InstagramOffensive content, or anything that can be construed as “hate speech” is prohibited by Instagram’s guidelines, but it declines to elaborate on how what constitutes hate speech, or offensive content is determined. Language is slippery; something kind in the mouth of one person, or then pen of one writer, can easily become its opposite in a different context. Words can become weapons too, lobbed like grenades into the ether to wound as many people as they can.

Instagram has a history of uneven application of what it calls “content moderation.” It has been noted, extensively, that while Instagram doesn’t allow nudity on its platform, its content moderators remove instances of bare chested females, but digital photographs of bare chested males go largely un-removed. The disparity, of course, says more about our taboos than it does anything else.

So what to make of all of this? Is the answer to recruit more culturally sensitive moderators? Or, is it to recognize that there is both a built-in arbitrariness and an invisible scaffolding that structures what we post, write, and see on social media — platforms driven first and foremost by profit. Perhaps hunting for intellectual freedom on social media is a fools errand, since it might be less related to newspapers than it is to television. But the answer is not so simple, since newspapers are profit-driven entities too.

All of this is on the heels of news that YouTube is now cracking down on channels that actively peddle conspiracy theories, and a judge suggesting that President Donald Trump mute rather than block his detractors online. Some aspects of public conversation may be online, but democracy and the internet are not the same thing. The internet is not a democratic utopia of free speech and exchange, and it was never constructed to be that. That conflation, like the conflation of entertainment and politics, along with the entanglement of art and commerce, are what keeps crusaders for transparency, or perhaps even that dying concept called truth, waking up in cold sweats at night. Still, knowing all of this, we scroll, click, and post.


Jane'a JohnsonJane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.

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