Instagram’s Perfect Lie
How The Platform’s Community Guidelines Are Aiding Right Wing Homophobia.
Recently, the Pines Conservation Society held its annual ‘Go Native’ panel on the ecology, history and culture of the Meat Rack—a bucolic half-mile of dunes and forest situated between the gay hamlets of Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, five miles adrift off Long Island’s southern shore. This writer spoke about art made in the Meat Rack. Traditionally a cruising ground, the area’s tracery of pathways can also be considered an arterial network carrying decades of individual stories, memories, encounters, anguish, and celebrations; those myriad instants that contribute to the collective experience of gay men within the larger, queer body politic. With the patina of time it has become a site of reverence, at once a sepulchre and a cradle to all that’s been lost, gained and that we yet hope for. Artists have always responded to these elemental prompts.
Photographs of the panel discussion, some including slides of the represented art, were posted on Instagram, and then promptly removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines on nudity and sexual activity. Initial surprise at the post’s removal was ameliorated by realizing a disparity – that imagery of male bodies and gay sexual intimacy which is a fundamental aspect of the queer canon (an aesthetic DNA if you will) Instagram sees only as degenerate content to be banished. But they are historically synonymous – to delete one, is to delete both. To punish the individual user, is to delegitimize his tribal inheritance, and render invisible part of a vulnerable cultural edifice that took untold sacrifice to build.
Blanket policies that hide behind the certainty that someone somewhere will be offended are a cowardly sidestep from meaningful discourse. The late polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, addressed this stance with the disregard that it deserves: “In this country (The United States) I’ve been told, ‘that’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument. Not to me they don’t.” The engineers of Instagram’s algorithms have so far failed to apply the nuance required to understand that nudity, sex and bodily affirmation are not gratuitous, unnecessary or merely humorous but to some groups, vital to selfhood and their very existence. Without that visual arc, and the artists who contribute to it, our social cartography is erased, and if we cannot access our past to know where we come from, we cannot know where we are going.
Sex and its pictorial expression wasn’t—and isn’t—just about pleasure for gay men, it was a way to connect, to develop a sense of agency, empowerment, and brotherhood – it was a righteous political act. These were among the limited tools we had to construct a social architecture as a bulwark against the fascist mores of right-wing politicians and religious zealots in lieu of the fundamental rights denied to us: marriage, family, legal protection; yet taken for granted by the straight majority.
Instagram’s duplicity is hidden in plain sight, in the painstaking yet tortured language of its post removal process. Use of the word ‘guidelines’ is untruthful; they are dictates carried on the promise that if you disobey them again you will (not may) lose access to your account and to your global audience, your allies and colleagues. Or, you can continue in compliance as a neutered version of your digital self.
Instagram trumpets community. Communities do exist on Instagram, but this is quite different from Instagram being a community. Its users are not a unified body nor do they all share common characteristics or interests. No one has any loyalty to Instagram, it just serves a purpose as today’s most effective way to communicate visually – one day, it won’t. With 1.5 billion users it is by its very nature an anti-community.
Throughout Instagram’s pages of rules, the language is specific yet cloudy; informational yet unclear; declarative yet contradictory. The result is confusion heaped upon obfuscation strewn with paranoid hedging. For example, buried deep within their policies are two versions of one regulation pertaining to art: ‘We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures’ while elsewhere ‘nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is ok, too’. Subtle and easily overlooked is the missing ‘and other art’ in the latter phrase, which consigns performance, installation and more conceptual (dangerous?) art forms to obscurity. You can appeal Instagram’s removal of your post ‘if you believe Instagram’s decision is damaging for a group or issue you care about’ but its shadowy review panel of independent experts (if they exist) issues a final decree that is dispatched with suspiciously robotic speed. There is a telling mistake in Instagram’s explanation of how to make an appeal that hints at the company’s disdain toward insubordination: ‘Explain how Facebook or Instagram got your decision wrong.’ Isn’t it Instagram’s decision that may be wrong?
To say that if one dislikes Instagram’s policies one can post elsewhere is to miss the point. META, which owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook is not just a social media juggernaut; it is an encyclopedia, a vast organizing network, a local, national and international library. It is the principle pop-cultural repository – and broadcaster – of our age and so, to be consigned to lesser models is to ‘be disappeared’.
Now, as ever, LGBTQ+ citizens are under attack from a resurgent conservative movement that META is (one hopes unwittingly) supporting. Its supremacy and influence come with responsibilities that cannot be avoided behind a gutless sanctioning apparatus that pretends egalitarianism while enforcing shame, displacement and prejudice. Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill (signed into law by the state’s Governor, Dollar Store Trump, Ron DeSantis) which bans conversation on gay and transgender subjects until the third grade (Ages 8-9), and Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas’ terrifying comments that the law establishing gay marriage (among others) was “demonstrably erroneous” and should be reconsidered, are just two recent examples. If exceptions to META’s teetering doctrines have to be made to protect and assert the rights of certain constituents in the face of unprecedented hostility, then those exceptions have to be made. Instagram and its overzealous parent have by their dominance forfeited the right to neutrality. Until they accept their role in countering tyranny, they are complicit in it.