Don’t Delete Art

Given the understandable reliance by most of the world on digital technology for communications throughout the annus horribilis of 2020 (and its continuation into 2021, with no certain prospect of escape from Covid restrictions), social-media platforms are becoming a sine qua non for supporting the practices of artists and related art-world professionals. When using such platforms, it has become increasingly difficult for artists to navigate rules, policies and practices that unilaterally censor communication of their images. Now, help is at hand: a guide has recently been published to help artists mitigate and/or avoid online censorship impositions: 

Don’t Delete Art is a New York City-based coalition of arts and free expression organisations campaigning to end ‘the censorship of artistic expression’. Initiated in mid 2020, after hundreds of artists had their complaints of censorship of their online images rejected by Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube, the coalition comprises the following seven founding members.

National Coalition Against Censorship, which is itself an alliance of 50 US-based non-commercial cultural organisations, whose national Arts Advocacy Program works directly with artists, curators and arts institutions facing censorship threats.

Article 19, which has its own Missing Voices campaign calling on social-media platforms to become transparent and accountable about their content moderation practices.

Freemuse, an independent international organisation advocating and defending freedom of artistic expression, particularly from a human rights perspective.

PEN America and Artists At Risk Connection, two organisations focusing on the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the US and worldwide.

International Arts Rights Advisers, which defends against the attack on freedom of expression of artists and arts institutions.

IBEX Collection, a ‘large collection of contemporary, figurative, super-realistic art’ curated for worldwide exhibition and sale, which is the only commercial member of the coalition: the collection’s directors stand against censorship not least because it ‘leads to artists self-censoring and the suppression of true artistic expression which is an invisible and insidious loss to society’.

Don’t Delete Art is dedicated to fighting against ‘digital gatekeepers controlling the world’s largest social-media platforms that have enormous power to determine what content can freely circulate and what should be banned or pushed into the digital margins’. In particular, ‘not only is content removed because of overly restrictive and sometimes unclear community guidelines, but, unbeknownst to users, material vaguely defined as objectionable is made to disappear from search and or explore functions, and hashtags’.

Don’t Delete Art contends that such censorship ‘has a dire effect on the work of emerging artists, those living in repressive regimes and, in general, on all who have no museum or gallery representation’, and that such impact is ‘even worse during Covid-19 lockdowns, as major social-media platforms have shifted the vast majority of content moderation decisions to algorithms. Thus, work can be erroneously removed and whole accounts deleted with thousands of followers lost. With no possibility of appeal, an artist can feel fearful and powerless and opt to censor themselves’. Artists are encouraged to share their online censorship experiences via the interactive database of censorship incidents at the National Coalition Against Censorship’s crowdsourced Censorpedia:

Don’t Delete Art’s guide for artists is founded on a declaration of key ‘principles and practices that should be adopted by all social-media platforms’ relating to notices and appeals as follows:

Notification – users should be notified every time content is removed from platform-specific functions ensuring higher visibility, such as hashtags, Instagram’s explore feature and others; notices should include details about the specific content removed, reasons for removal, the specific rule violated, how the content was detected and any risk of permanent deletion of the account.

Appeal – notification of removal or downranking should: explain how to appeal the decision; be available even if an account is suspended or terminated; include natural justice steps (such as opportunity to present additional information to be considered, review by a person or a panel that was not involved in the initial decision, notification of results with explanation given within a period of time no longer than seven days, and availability of a last-instance review by an independent external oversight mechanism).

Notices and appeal processes should in any event be conducted in nationally recognised languages of the countries in which the platforms operate, be available in the platform’s terms and conditions of service provision, and be accessible even if a user’s account has been suspended or terminated.

The guide makes three key suggestions about artistic content: platforms should ensure that artist accounts are not repeatedly silenced: one option is to verify artist and arts organisation accounts, then subject them to a different level of algorithmic scrutiny; they should not censor artistic expression for the sole reason that it contains nudity (the human nude has always been one of the central subjects of art); and they should develop mechanisms to ensure that imagery in the world’s museums can also be seen and shared on social media.

The guide’s comprehensive Tips Section will be especially helpful to artists and art organisations: it explains how to understand and work around existing ‘community guidelines’ published by social-media platforms and is informed by advice from workers at Instagram and Facebook. Tips are collated into two broad categories: before you post your work and navigating the appeals process.

Tips include the following advice on hashtags and downranking (reduced visibility of so-called borderline or inappropriate or questionable content that does not violate a platform’s community guidelines or terms of service): avoid using restricted or ‘banned’ or deactivated hashtags (such as #nudity, #milf and an ever-changing list of others) as they can limit your potential audience; search to see if a hashtag is banned and, if there are no ‘top posts’, a hashtag is likely banned; if you realise you used a restricted hashtag, you can edit your post and remove the restricted hashtag.

There are also tips on why and how to contextualise non-photographic art (when posts fall into a category acceptable by community guidelines, but may be mistaken for a banned category such as photo-realistic art or photographic nudity used in the context of protest): add clues alluding to the work’s medium or purpose to help minimise the likelihood of content being unjustly censored; add captions and descriptions of the work posted (especially if it is ‘political/social protest’); use neutral terms like ‘art’ and ‘painting’ rather than phrases that allude to nudity or sexually explicit content. Further tips address: self-censorship and pixelation; censor apps and tools; what to do if you think your account is in danger of being deleted.

Don’t Delete Art’s guide is realistically sanguine about the prospects of successful censorship avoidance: if all else fails, ‘take a break from [platform/s], or refrain from posting images that could violate community standards for a while’.

© Henry Lydiate 2021

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.