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Instagram Has a Problem With the Word ‘Dyke’

Genderfluid users say the platform’s moderation system is discriminating against them

Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

RRecently, I tried to leave what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment on my girlfriend’s Instagram. It was a photo I had taken of her during San Francisco Pride, blocks away from the Dyke March, an annual event for queer women.

My girlfriend, Amy Osiason, works as an androgynous model, and the photo was of her pointing to a billboard with her face on it — part of a Pride campaign for Lyft. The moment seemed extra prideful, so I commented, “Also this was on Dyke Day!” But I was surprised when Instagram suggested I censor myself. A message popped up that read, “Are you sure you want to post this?” along with an “undo” option. I went ahead and posted, then got another message saying, “We’re asking people to rethink comments that seem similar to others that have been reported. If we made a mistake, let us know.”

Instagram has a history of censoring the word “dyke.” Early last year, the lesbian journalist Trish Bendix wrote about how Instagram was deleting posts of Zoe Leonard’s poem I Want a Dyke for President which was shared widely leading up to and after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. This despite the fact that the United States Patent and Trademark Office officially declared dyke to be a term associated with gay pride in 2005, after the San Francisco-based motorcycle contingency “Dykes on Bikes” fought a legal battle to trademark their name. (The decision was reinforced in 2007, when a male lawyer sued the Trademark Office on the grounds that the word dyke is offensive to men.)

More than 10 years later, the word dyke seems to be censored more than ever on a platform that many queer women use to build community. And that might be because Instagram’s new policies too easily result in censorship.

It didn’t take long to figure out that I’d been asked not to comment with the word because of an A.I.-driven, anti-bullying feature introduced on Instagram in July. Stephanie Otway, Instagram’s brand communications manager, told OneZero the A.I. behind this feature is not yet sophisticated enough to “recognize when someone is using a reclaimed slur. For now, the decision we made as a company is to just say, let’s be overcautious.” She said Instagram is working to make the A.I. better recognize context.

But this isn’t the only change on Instagram that’s alarmed the LGBTQ community. In the last few months, queer Instagram users — including one who shared their story with OneZero — have had their accounts deleted without warning for “violation of terms.” Others have been warned that their accounts may be deleted because they’d posted “nudity or sexual activity,” even though the photos were not actually pornographic. And some users have noticed a rise in what’s known as “shadow banning” — their posts remain visible to their followers but not in the Explore tab, which allows users to find new content related to their interests or in searches for specific hashtags.

Instagram has not acknowledged the existence of shadowbans, but this April, Facebook announced that it had “begun reducing the spread of posts that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s community guidelines, limiting those types of posts from being recommended on our Explore and hashtag pages.” The company added specifically that it would be demoting posts that are “sexually suggestive” but do not explicitly violate guidelines.

“[Instagram has] 15,000 content reviewers, about one in 10 pieces of content that they look at is incorrectly actioned.”

Maya/Sebastian, a genderfluid model who uses Instagram to connect with her community and photographers, has noticed a change in her audience engagement since this policy was introduced. “Every single shirtless photo I post with tape over my chest gets taken off hashtags,” she said. Maya/Sebastian showed me several photos of herself that had been taken off hashtags — large stickers completely covered her nipples in all of them.

Instagram’s community guidelines actively distinguish censorship levels based on gender — specifically stating that they will sometimes censor female nipples but not male nipples. Since Maya/Sebastian had covered her nipples, gender shouldn’t have been a factor. But she now avoids posting photos of her chest, even though she thinks sharing these images might help other genderfluid people. “I must have strikes against me or something so there’s just a permanent autofilter on anything that might have chest.”

Otway said that people who have content censored once are more likely to continue to be taken off hashtags. “If someone has broken our rules recently, we will not surface your content [in hashtag searches or the Explore tab] for some time, just because we want to make sure you’re not going to be a repeat offender,” she said. But she also admits that while decisions to actually delete a post or an account always include human review, reviewers do make mistakes. “We have 15,000 content reviewers, about one in 10 pieces of content that they look at is incorrectly actioned.” This is partly because reviewers won’t see the full context of a post or the poster’s full account information, so they might not recognize that someone using a reclaimed LGBTQ slur is part of the LGBTQ community, for example.

The decision to remove a larger amount of material from the public eye is intended to avoid offending Instagram’s diverse audience, Otway said. “We have a community of a billion people around the world, all different cultures, all different beliefs, all different things they’d like to see. So we are stricter about what we surface there,” she said. But, Maya/Sebastian explained when LGBTQ users can only be seen by the people who are already following them, it makes it harder to build community.

“I use Instagram mostly to build awareness around what it means to be queer, and especially bigender,” she said. “By limiting my reach, the ability to improve the lives of other queer people gets stunted.” She said it also has some effect on her modeling career, because fewer photographers see her.

OneZero shared Maya/Sebastian’s Instagram account with Otway to find out if posts had been removed from hashtags in error. Otway confirmed that this account “had some restrictions on it it shouldn’t have” and that Instagram has since “removed those restrictions and the account should appear on hashtag pages now.”

An anonymous Instagram user, who prefers to be referred to by her handle @godimsuchadyke, told me her ability to build community has been limited because of an uptick in Instagram censorship. Her account, which consists entirely of lesbian memes and content, was deleted in July. “They just said, ‘You violated our terms. Here they are. You figure it out.’” She was able to get her account reactivated, she said, but only because of her connection to Trish Bendix, who in turn knows Instagram employees through her journalism. After reaching out to an Instagram employee, @godimsuchadyke said she quickly heard back that her account had been deactivated in error.

Bendix confirmed that she shared Instagram contacts with @godimsuchadyke, and added that queer users shouldn’t need insider connections to be able to connect on the platform. When queer content gets deleted or removed from hashtags, she said, “It’s basically like [Instagram is] protecting us from ourselves.”

@godimsuchadyke agrees, and adds that without insider contacts it can be almost impossible to get a response from Instagram about a deleted post. “Instagram’s lack of culpability for this kind of mistaken censorship and lack of real dialogue with those they censor is a huge indication that we cannot rely on the platform to advocate for our community and that we are the ones who have to look out for one another when things like this happen.” @godimsuchadyke added that queer people shouldn’t rely on Instagram as their sole community or career-building platform, as their accounts or content could be deleted at any time.

Instagram recently announced that it would try to bring clarity to the appeals process in the coming months, but the announcement didn’t include any mention of an open line of communication with Instagram. Bendix is skeptical about the platform making real changes to the policies that censor queer content. “They just don’t care enough yet. And I don’t know what it’s going to take to get to that point.”

Independent writer, translator, and audio producer. Pulitzer Center grantee. I’m interested in what globalization is doing to your body.

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