Is Art Censorship on Social Media Leading Us To Tyranny?

Posted on: June 25, 2020 by

In 2019, the Home Office Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport published a White Paper with a plan to oblige social media companies to expand their censorship efforts through the imposition of a new statutory duty of care. Noting that “99% of 12 to 15 year olds are online,” the White Paper suggested that increased regulation could both “protect freedom of expression” but also “make people safer online.” But are these goals really compatible?

While we can all agree on the many types of violent and inciting images and text that should be blocked (for example, footage of heinous acts such as beheadings and rape), the domain of art is filled with gray areas, subjective opinions, and many significant works that are intended to be provocative. In recent years, Old Master paintings and contemporary art alike have triggered responses from social media users, and/or computer algorithms that are designed to flag ‘unsafe’ content and scrub it from social media platforms. Indeed, a BBC live life drawing class which encouraged those taking part to share their drawings on social media, fell foul of Instagram’s community standards earlier this month. In some instances, content is ‘shadowbanned’ instead, meaning that it will not be visible to viewers, although no notification will be given that the work was censored.

As artists increasingly use social media to publicize their work, and to attract the interest of collectors, galleries and curators, the stakes are high as to what will be deemed too ‘unsafe’ to be seen. The stakes are also high for democracies in which citizens increasingly get their news through the filter of for-profit behemoths like Google, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (1612-1614, located at The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp) was removed from Facebook in 2018 (Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This complex topic was the subject of an online panel held last week at the York Festival of Ideas, a recording of which can be viewed on Youtube. The discussion was moderated by Professor Michael White, Chair of the History of Art Department at the University of York, and included myself, art historian Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani, photographer Joanne Leah, and filmmaker belit sağ.

I began the discussion with a brief overview of my research into the outcomes of censorship campaigns in the United States and the United Kingdom in the period between the War for Independence and World War I. This is a topic I also had the opportunity to share at the IAL Study Forum in York last February. As I explained then, in many cases, artists in both countries refrained from making the type of work censorious agents sought to suppress. However, there were always some artists who subverted intended regulatory effects and defiantly produced work that attracted attention – and in many cases sales – because of its seemingly ‘modern’ rejection of contemporary standards. In our present moment, Joanne Leah’s work is an excellent demonstration of the stimulus censorship sometimes provides for artists to make work that challenges and complicates the efforts of the censor.

Leah’s photographic practice, based in New York City, engages nude models to pose in a manner that playfully manages to avoid triggering social media’s censorship algorithms. The work is strikingly erotic, thus demonstrating the randomness of the current system for evaluating and removing images. In meetings with social media executives, Leah has attempted to speak out in favour of ‘body positive’ guidelines that respect communities who previously have been silenced and erased from the public sphere, including sex workers and trans people. Leah has also circulated an anti-censorship petition, and formed an organization, Artists Against Social Media Censorship, which catalogues numerous artists who have been censored. Her presentation concluded with a critical question: “Why is a single corporate advertising platform deciding what is art and what is pornography and what is appropriate and what is obscene?”

Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani’s PhD research on journalistic images of violence and their appropriation by 21st-century artists may at first glance seem unrelated to the experiences of artists whose work is censored due to its sexual subject matter. However, social media companies make similar determinations regarding ‘intention’ and ‘harm’ when deciding what is allowable in this domain. Lignou-Tsamantani made her point by discussing (although purposefully not showing) Nilüfer Demir’s Photograph of Alan Kurdi. Kurdi was a three-year old Syrian migrant trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to safety when he drowned and was photographed washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. Did the circulation of the image help other migrants? Or revictimize the bereaved family? Artists appropriating images such as these often call attention to the question of what should be seen by using effects such as pixilation and blurring to erase parts of the picture.

Finally, belit sağ spoke of her colour videos, which strategically present – and obscure – the  evidences of atrocities, including brutal Turkish suppression of pro-Kurdish supporters. In many cases, including this one, oppressive regimes use images of murder and rape as tools of control, circulating them online in order to provoke terror and disempowerment. For sağ, signifying, rather than representing death in her videos calls into question the decision-making process that underlies all circulation – and erasure – of such images. In contrast to state actors, search platforms and social media companies, her hope is to create an ethical framework for making moral decisions about visibility. We all agreed in our final conversation that such a system would stand in stark contrast to our current situation, in which companies which sell user data make decisions primarily based on their corporate financial interests.

In the week since our panel discussion, protests demanding an end to racial injustice around the world have been spurred by the wide-spread circulation on the internet of photographs and videos of police brutality. Returning to the Online Harms White Paper, we may ask whether the proposed new regulatory body might determine that these should be removed from the public sphere. Could evidence of police misbehavior be deemed ‘incitement of violence’ or even ‘terrorist content’ on the basis that it is provoking protest, sometimes accompanied by violence? In Australia recently, social media censors removed photographic proof of slavery in the country, which had been posted in refutation of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that it never had existed.

Citizens in representative democracies that claim to value freedom of expression, including the United Kingdom and the United States, like to believe they are immune from the type of government censorship perpetrated by oppressive regimes, but is it really possible to avoid the slippery slope to tyranny if governments take over the reins of censorship determinations?

Our panel ultimately raised more questions than it answered. Hopefully, however, it demonstrated the need to reconsider the risks involved in decisions about censorship being left in the hands of companies – or governments – whose motivation to protect their own self-interests might imperil the future of artistic freedom – and much else along with it.


For more information on the relationship between art and censorship, see the articles by Tristan Shek, Paul Kearns and Daniel Thomas in IAL’s Art Antiquity & Law journal. Look out for a new article by Paul Kearns on this topic in the upcoming edition of the journal (Volume XXV, Issue 2, 2020).