Instagram and Black Censorship: Where Did It All Go So Wrong?

by Christina Donoghue on 2 November 2021

The censorship of black artists on and offline has gone on far too long. With many black artists having experienced being shadow banned by the platform for posts that do not violate the community guidelines it's worth posing the question of who's at fault: Instagram or you?

The censorship of black artists on and offline has gone on far too long. With many black artists having experienced being shadow banned by the platform for posts that do not violate the community guidelines it's worth posing the question of who's at fault: Instagram or you?

First things first, Instagram has a problem. Over the years, countless investigative articles have documented the platform's troubling relationship with censorship by uncovering their questionable decisions over who and what to censor. From that one time Instagram blamed their algorithm's censoring of activists on a 'technical bug' to the rolling out of their 'Sensitive Content Control', which took part in penalising the very communities it was designed to protect. The invisible line between Instagram's guidelines and their strict policing of posts has never been more obscure.

A simple Google search on the matter will most likely direct you towards the company's fittingly broad and ambiguous policy statement:

'As a private company, Instagram reserves the right to remove whatever content deemed to be unfit for the platform. Censorship, as it pertains to Instagram, is intended to prevent the creation and circulation of harmful and misleading ideas, ensure the platform is suitable for all ages and discourage bullying.'

So far, so good. Yet upon delving deeper, it becomes clear that there is more to their censorship policy than meets the eye. Despite the platform having over a billion users, with 15,000 people hired to review posts and search for banned material, the world's most popular social media platform has been repeatedly accused of discriminating against black people. But the question remains: how did it get to this? The very act alone of trying to understand 'how' can lead you down a rabbit hole of double standards and contradictory laws that makeup their self-described 'inclusive' community guidelines, concluding in the realisation that their laws - apparently designed to protect the platform's most vulnerable communities - are anything but 'inclusive'.

It's no secret the platform's algorithm favours thin, white, cis-gendered people, effectively censoring all who don't fit into that small minority

Male nipples? Fine. Female nipples? Not fine. White unclothed bodies? Generally fine. Black unclothed bodies? Generally not fine. Female nipples when shown with pregnancy? It's confusing. Nudity in general? It's even more confusing (especially when you factor in the platform's ever-changing regulations, the last of which took place on 20 December 2020). Then there's the more pressing issue of what Instagram says is acceptable to post, but upon closer inspection, really isn't. For example, their guidelines in no way discriminate against black people (covert racism at its best), so why does the same problem keep occurring? Of course, marginalised communities have been aware of these hazardous so-called protection laws for years; after all, it's no secret the platform's algorithm favours thin, white, cis-gendered people, effectively censoring all who don't fit into that small minority (which on the app, thanks to its meticulously-designed algorithm, is unfortunately made out to be the majority).

Mia Rodney for Tate Collective. Mask inspired by Dennis Morris

A couple of weeks ago, while participating in everyone's favourite activity when it comes to time-wasting (yes, I'm talking about aimlessly watching people's Instagram stories), I came across one of my friend's work accounts on the app where she posts her freelance textile projects and all things knit: an account owned by artist Mia Rodney, aptly named @allbitsknit. Already familiar with my friend's work, I realised I'd not given her beautifully crocheted pieces the time I did other work on my Instagram feed. Now I come to think of it, despite having followed @allbitsknit since its inception, it rarely appeared on my feed at all, and as for the account's stories...well, they were banished to the back of the queue.

Her work, intricate in its technique and appearance, sturdy and durable in its nature, is at once elegant and colourful, yet there's more to her vivid designs than meets the eye. The stories interwoven in her textiles are purposefully designed to be secretive and subtle, all immersed in underlying references and hidden meanings. Not merely because Rodney feels she should 'lay low' regarding her subject matter that refuses to appease idealised white beauty standards, but because she feels that's simply what makes good art. 'The point is to get people thinking. If I advertised the message loud and clear, people would spend less time looking at my work. I want my creations to speak for themselves and keep people thinking and guessing for as long as possible; it's more fun that way, and as I've often found, resonates with many more people.'

Despite the guessing game Rodney likes to play with her followers and the often frequented bursts of colour that bring her textiles to life, this wasn't what caught my attention on a rainy Sunday afternoon. What had stumped me most was Rodney's short 10-second Instagram story explaining her confusingly odd experience with her work being refused by Instagram's built-in 'promote' tab, a recurring situation that had been happening over the past year. Least to say, she'd finally had enough.

You end up feeling insecure about work that you know is harmless; it tricks you into thinking you're the problem - Mia Rodney

Censorship and nudity is one thing, purposefully stopping black and POC creatives from promoting their work solely because it carries a (positive) political statement? That's something else altogether. Rodney's work, first and foremost, has always been inspired by her experience as a mixed-race textiles designer. Her graduate show from Chelsea College of Arts in 2019 included an array of suspended tubes - both curly and straight - covered in different materials and textures, illustrating her turbulent relationship with her Afro hair. Although this work was politically and racially driven, one only knew this information if either asking Rodney about her work directly or deciding to read the small pamphlet neatly placed next to the exhibition display - for reasons mentioned above. While creating this body of work, Rodney never received a problem when wanting to promote her work on Instagram through the app's 'promote' tab, everything ran smoothly, and she even managed to ramp up considerable traffic directed to her account. Then, the Black Lives Matter protests rolled around in June 2020, and everything changed.

During the BLM protests, the textile designer was approached by the social cause and collective Adapt with a simple brief that asked her to make 'protest gear'. Assertive, bold and unapologetic, Rodney responded to the brief by illustrating all the uncertainty she felt surrounding what was happening using the straightforward statement 'I Will Not Be Silent' as a testament to her frustration. This message was then embroidered onto a scarf, and without losing the ambiguity synonymous with many of her designs, Rodney's artistic voice was slowly becoming more political by the hour.

'When the news of George Floyd's murder first began to circulate, many protest signs read "I Can't Breathe". Later on, the "Breathe" was crossed out with a red line and replaced with "I Can't Be Silent". I felt this was such a powerful phrase, one which stemmed from the recent BLM protests, but I think it can be applied to protests of any description. I landed on "I Will Not Be Silent", which I really feel is a universal message that embodies the whole notion of standing up and making a change.' Rodney told Adapt at the time.

In short, although the phrase alluded towards BLM in the wake of George Floyd's death, it also alluded to many other issues, and to put it bluntly, the scarf would never look out of place at a protest; no matter what protests it'd be worn to. However, Instagram did not seem to approve, stopping Rodney from using the promote tab to bring attention to the work. Characteristically, Rodney initially didn't link the matter her work focused on to Instagram denying her use over their promote tab, instead turning inwards, thinking it was something she'd done wrong. 'You end up feeling insecure about work that you know is harmless; it tricks you into thinking you're the problem and makes you look inwards', Rodney told me.

Somewhere down the line, Rodney realised she wasn't going crazy as stories started to pour in from other black and POC creatives, making her realise that 'this isn't a "me" problem, this is an Instagram problem'. But the realisation wasn't without its setbacks, particularly when Rodney grasped this was all to do with race, revealing to me, 'When you're encouraged to embrace confidence and make work about real-world issues, to not only get shut down but also blocked, hidden and faced with endless obstacles serves as a persistent reminder that we do not have the same privilege or accessibility. It is already a struggle - having to prove yourself and prove you deserve to be somewhere - but to then be "punished", for this? None of it makes a shred of sense.'

One person in particular who got in touch with Rodney with a similar experience was London-based multidisciplinary artist Beverley Onyangunga whose work, in her own words, 'aims to give a voice to the voiceless'. Her Martha Rosler-style collages have gained attention since graduating from her MA at Chelsea College of Arts, letting the artist explore her Congolese roots while also using her platform to highlight the atrocities committed by various officials during colonial times. Onyangunga informed Rodney that she'd been shadow-banned completely, a phrase neither Rodney nor I familiar with, so I decided to speak to Onyangunga to find out more.

My work is real; Instagram and the lifestyle it promotes, isn't - Beverley Onyangunga

What exactly is shadow banning? Wikipedia's definition is listed as follows:

'Shadow banning, also called stealth banning, ghost banning or comment ghosting, is the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.'

Essentially, if an account has been shadow-banned, their posts won't appear on other people's feeds meaning less interaction from their followers, no matter how high or low their following ratio is. Their stories are dismissed to the back of the queue and their grid posts receive little to no interaction at all.

There's a lot to take in when gazing at Onyangunga's work. Instead of siding with ambiguity, Onyangunga's work stands loud and clear in its message, hammering home a reality that many refuse to accept outside of their comfy Westernised ideals. Strikingly similar to Rosler's House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home series - which saw the 70s performance artist layer distressing images from the Vietnam war over the stylised glossy homes cut out from magazines - Onyangunga uses a similar technique to communicate the modern legacy of slavery. 'Sometimes, I get told from time to time that my work is "too dark", and I'm like, "yeah, that's the point? What happened wasn't exactly a good time". Obviously, I would like to make work that's "pretty and nice", but sometimes it just doesn't work like that. My work is dark, and that's the whole point to it.'

There's a tone of urgency that Onyangunga laces throughout her work, knowingly or not. Indeed, some of her work is harder to look at than others', but its place on the world stage - one which works hard to successfully rewrite history's teaching and wrongdoing - is second to none. No matter how gruesome a subject she may be dealing with, her level of sensitivity and care towards her work is extraordinary, and although her images deal with harrowing issues of colonisation, they are in no way offensive, instead, quite the opposite. The only 'harmful ideas' that exist as part of Onyangunga's body of work are ones that lay in the hands and minds of the Western world, a world that Instagram would much rather promote over anything else.

'When I first started using Instagram as a way to promote the work I was making, I was always told to be wary, especially because I'm an artist whose work deals with issues that admittedly aren't "content friendly" but until it happened to me, I never thought it could be that easy to be shadow-banned,' Onyangunga told me over a phone call. 'The problems arose when I tried to use the promote tab for one specific piece of work. At first, the work seemed to be promoted. I gained a couple of hundred followers, along with the likes and interests that follow, yet when I look at the post, Instagram informs me this promotion was, in fact, rejected. That was the first time that made me think, "ah ok, I kinda see the game now". It was confusing because, on the surface, it all appeared fine.'

I asked Onyangunga why she thinks the post 'didn't meet the requirements'. Her answer was one I didn't expect to hear and was both intriguing and carefully considered. 'It's funny because Instagram is fake', she immediately replied. 'It promotes fake identity and fake ways of living and fake interactions. It doesn't show reality, and we all know that. So as someone whose work talks about authentic experiences rooted in the truth and fact, it makes sense that the app would want to censor it. My work is real, Instagram and the lifestyle it promotes, isn't.' Going on to compare the app to that of the expectations faced in high school, Onyangunga acknowledged, 'Instagram is like high school. You have all the popular girls, who all look the same and dress the same, and then you have the rest of us, the one's who have a story to tell, the one's who are interesting and unique.'

Below is the first piece of work Onyangunga tried to promote. At the time of writing, her account has 679 followers. The post has 862 likes, 183 more than her following ratio, proving the post was promoted; Onyangunga's insights further reveal the post reached a whopping 20,464 people, despite the apparent rejection. The subsequent screenshots that follow reveal Beverley's insights referring to the work in question.

Courtesy of Beverley Onyangunga's Instagram account
Courtesy of Beverley Onyangunga's Instagram account

Despite the artist's daily and yearly battles (she informed me one appeal regarding the rejected promotion is over a year old), Onyangunga doesn't think the app is all bad. 'Instagram censoring my work hasn't put me off the app', she says. 'I'm still going to continue to write and talk about the issues that inform my work', promising her continued promotion of diversity in the face of adversity. 'It's not all bad, and I will continue to keep using the app because it's opened me up to so many creatives I wouldn't have usually encountered...designers, artists and musicians alike. But if I'm speaking the truth, sometimes I do just think, "Oh, I really can't be arsed with this"', she laughs.

Rodney and Onyangunga are just two of many Instagram users effected by the problem; it's one that doesn't only affect accounts with a smaller following ratio, but the bigger ones too. Needless to say, there are too many examples of times when Instagram has favoured the stylised thin white ideal to list here, and if we did, this article would be never-ending. That said, specific examples that spring to mind include that time Alexandra Cameron's charming photograph of model Nyome Nicholas-Williams was deleted within hours of being posted with Nicholas-Williams warned her account could be shut down. The post, you ask? A photograph of the black South-London model bathed under natural lighting, with her eyes closed and arms wrapped around her breasts. For the short while the post was up, the photograph was met with nothing but praise. 'Stunning… beautiful… this should be in a gallery!' were comments The Guardian reported in their detailed account of the incident. What was the problem then? There wasn't one; that's the problem. Explicit nudity? No. Any depiction of violence? Quite the opposite. Promotion of harmful ideals? No. Right, so that's the guidelines sorted, but is Nicholas-Williams black? Yes. And is she plus-sized? Yes. Ahhh, slowly, the puzzle pieces are coming together.

There have been multiple times when I have had inner battles trying to conform to a white audience, to keep my work palatable and not be the "angry black woman" - Mia Rodney

With people understandably bewildered, confused and rightfully angered by the situation, Nicholas-Williams' followers consequently rallied in their hundreds to share the censored photos of the model under the hashtag #IwanttoseeNyome. At the same time, Cameron also accused Instagram of an overwhelmingly apparent disparity between its positive statements over Black Lives Matter and the visible unfair targeting of its black content creators. Commenting on this, Rodney elaborated, 'It's just such a shame for black and POC creatives to be hit with a brick wall blocking the display of their creativity because it doesn't meet the "community guidelines". There have been multiple times when I have had inner battles and conversations with my friends about the pressure that comes with still trying to conform to a white audience, to keep it palatable and not be the "angry black woman".

Nyome Nicholas-Williams by Alexandra Cameron

Last year, comic artist and caricaturist Peo Michie wanted to create work that reflected her intersectional identities as both an LGBTQI+ and POC creator. She came up with a drawing of two black lesbians sitting on each others' laps having a sexy conversation - about ending systemic violence and defunding the police. Upon publishing, Instagram immediately took down the post and issued a 'hate speech' violation. Speaking on the matter, Michie told Hyperallergic at the time, 'The police (don't) need Instagram's protection from hate speech because the police are not a community, the police are not disempowered, and the police are not vulnerable. It's still just another racist institution of colonialism, now using systemic violence and punitive criminal policy to subjugate people. It's a bastard, racist institution that deserves to be parodied, criticised, defunded, and abolished, and that isn't hateful to say.' In fact, it's hateful to criticise anyone who dares to speak up.

Artist Peo Michie

Wanting to allow Instagram to speak for themselves on this matter, hoping for either an issued apology or correction regarding both @allbitsknit and @bvley, I reached out to them for a comment. In response, I was sent a detailed list of bullet points demonstrating a 'background' on the issues discussed in this article. Firstly, I was told the reasoning for @allbitknit's posts not being promoted was due to the account's use of 'profanities'. It's worth mentioning that once a post has been rejected from promotion, you can't edit the post or its text. There's no use of profanity on @allbitsknit, not a single swearword. The @curvynyome case was also conveniently listed as a simple 'error'. In relation to both @allbitsknit and @bvley suffering from being able use the platform's promote tab efficiently, Instagram also informed me both accounts are within their right to appeal this decision, which is where I inform you, both accounts have. Both accounts have unanswered appeals over a year old.

As much as I would like to quote sections of their half-assed inadequate response, Instagram bizarrely informed me not to. As for an official statement on the matter? They have since declined to comment. So, in brief, yes, Instagram does have a problem, a rather big one at that. And it's not one they plan on owning up to any time soon. Black lives and experiences are censored enough IRL, but shadow-banning and censorship on Instagram signal to an even bigger issue at hand. That as we network in our online worlds, we cannot escape from the systemically racist societies our URL lives are held within.

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