Why is Instagram censoring a 1992 poem revered by the LGBTQ community?

What’s in a word?
What’s in a word?
Image: Instagram
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“I want a dyke for president,” artist Zoe Leonard writes in her 1992 poem. Inspired by the author Eileen Myles’ run for president, and written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the poem, “I want a president,” has since been shown in museums, galleries, and outdoor installations around the world. More than a quarter-century after it was written, the poem made its way to Instagram—and became the center of a controversy over censorship on social media.

The storm surrounding the poem is a window into the tension between free expression and content moderation on Instagram. The platform has given audiences direct access to art, and is a forum for activism. But pieces like Leonard’s can also be censored under the vague rules that govern social media, imposed by a private company and executed with the help of machine learning and a legion of content moderators. 

On Sunday, Jan. 21, Washington, DC couple Leighton Brown and Matthew Riemer posted the poem on lgbt_history, an account they run that is dedicated to the history of the queer community. The date was important: a government shutdown was underway, and it was the one-year anniversary of US president Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March. The poem, Brown and Riemer told Quartz in an email, “is among the starkest representations of the queer community’s feelings of desperation and underrepresentation at the height of the AIDS era.“

The next day, Monday, the post—which had garnered about 12,000 likes—was taken down by the platform for “violating community standards.” Brown and Riemer reposted the poem three times on Monday night, going into Tuesday, and each time it was taken down. They asked their followers to share the poem, flooding the platform with hundreds of posts. Not everyone who shared the poem had it removed, but those censored included some big names in the art world, including the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which is planning a retrospective of Leonard’s work.

Some of the posts were restored later in the week, seemingly after Quartz contacted the platform on Wednesday. Other posts were still censored as of Friday. Instagram did not explain why the posts were taken down despite multiple requests for comment over three days, saying instead that they were “looking into it.” Update: On Friday evening, an Instagram spokesperson said, “The content was taken down by mistake, and has since been restored,” adding that it was taking steps to prevent this from happening again. Quartz asked for further clarification about the process by which the content had been removed, and will update with more information if Instagram responds.

Leonard told Quartz in an email that although she was not on Instagram, she checked the platform’s community guidelines, and was perplexed as to why the poem had been censored.  It “has no profanity, no threats, no hate speech, and no explicit sexual imagery,” she said.

What it does contain is words like “dyke” or “fag,” which can be used as homophobic slurs, likely in violation of Instagram guidelines that ban hate speech. But those words also been re-appropriated by the queer community. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a photographer whose posts featuring Leonard’s poem were taken down five times, told Quartz that if big tech companies are able to figure out users’ interests, views, and their social circles in order to advertise to them in a highly precise way, they should be able to figure out whether someone is using a word in an appropriate context.

Sepuya documented the censorship process.
Sepuya documented the censorship process.
Image: Paul Sepuya/Instagram

Instagram’s art censorship is not a new phenomenon—in fact, there’s an entire book documenting instances of such censorship, which affects women and images of their bodies in particular. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts found itself in a confrontation with the Silicon Valley giant over its removal of nude images taken by the esteemed 20th-century photographer Imogen Cunningham.

But the censorship often seems arbitrary. Sepuya’s work, which contains pretty explicit male nudity (image not safe for work), has not been censored by Instagram, he said. Leonard’s poem, meanwhile, had been posted to Instagram many times in the past, particularly after it was displayed as a public installation on New York’s High Line park in 2016. “These overwhelming corporate entities—we put content in there for them to make money off of and when the door is slammed you don’t know why or for what reason,” Sepuya said.

Brown and Riemer say they’ve had a “handful” of posts taken down since they started their account two years ago. They say while they may disagree with the reasoning, they understand why a button “that just said ‘FAGGOT’” got taken down. “But ‘I Want a President’ is different,” they say. “It’s mournful, sure, but it’s an expression of pride.”

While they appreciate that the platform has mechanisms in place to root out hate speech, “at some point, though, there has to be some way to have a conversation about usage.”

Part of the problem here is context. Social media platforms have trouble determining whether content deemed as offensive is being shared in earnestness, or as a form of commentary or documentation. In November, for instance, Facebook, which owns Instagram, took down images of white nationalists taken down by renowned Polish photojournalist Chris Niedenthal. The company told Quartz at the time that the photos’ neutral caption did not indicate that Niedenthal was opposed to the content, which the platform sees as hate speech.

Brown and Riemer say that Instagram has provided an unprecedented forum for queer history. “The number of people that are having Zoe Leonard’s words reinforced (or introduced) is incalculable.” Instagram “in and of itself” is not the problem, they say. “The problem is that there seems to be a one-sided discussion going on about who gets to decide what content is ‘acceptable’ and there plainly are gaps in the process that have to be fixed.”

The company is trying technological solutions to address the issue of context. It recently stepped up its efforts to stop cyberbullying, using AI technology that is supposed to be able to discern the context in which a word is used to scour comments for offensive content. But whether it’s the matter of policy or technology, the nuances of language and art remain a persistent problem for the platform, which can turn some users away. 

Quartz asked Instagram whether the Leonard posts were being reported by other users and taken down by content moderators, or whether its AI mechanisms were flagging words that could be seen as offensive. Update: on Monday, Instagram clarified that the poem was being flagged by other users.

“This is my delete Uber moment,” filmmaker Matt Wolf told Quartz. “Sharing an image of a powerful public artwork by a seminal lesbian artist may feel like a minor act of resistance, but it’s meaningful … We want Instagram to be a public space but it’s not, and that can feel defeating.”

This post has been updated with comments from Instagram.