Your Post Goes Against Our Community Guidelines: An Algorithmic Rewriting of History

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One of the defining features of a free society is that it can write its own histories, accounts of what happened at certain points of time in the past. These accounts might differ in detail or final interpretation, and they can be heavily contested. They often are in flux and in need of being amended or outright rewritten. Still, all of that is possible.

In societies that are not free, whether in dictatorships or under authoritarian regimes, this process does not exist. There, what happened, when, and how is determined by those in power, and it is not to be contested. Crucially, such societies live with an imposed type of forgetting (which with time turns into an imposed not knowing): there are certain events that did not happen even though they did, because their existence is at odds with the rulers’ narrative.

It comes as no surprise that photography has played a part in the writing of history. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, for example, formerly powerful people were not just made to physically disappear, they were also airbrushed out of official photographs. In much the same fashion, the leadership of China has worked very hard on erasing all evidence of when soldiers were made to massacre its own citizens in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Imagine my surprise when after posting a photograph from the Abu Ghraib archives next to a recent one of Donald Trump on Instagram I was informed by the site that the post had been removed because it went against “Community Guidelines.” A little further down, the notification gave a more specific reason, which is worth quoting in full: “Post removed for violence or dangerous organizations”.

To begin with, that’s quite something, isn’t it? A corporation’s algorithms determined that the US military (of which Sabrina Harman was a member when her thumbs-up picture next to a corpse was taken) is a dangerous organization (obviously, this wouldn’t come as a surprise to Iraqis).

There was a big, bold “button” underneath the notification entitled “OK”. Right below, less prominent, I was given the option to contest the removal, which I did. To be honest, I didn’t expect this to go anywhere, but whatever gesture the contesting was, it was one that I felt was necessary.

A few weeks ago, I had seen a documentary about Facebook’s censors (newspeak: “content moderators”). In the documentary, a different Abu Ghraib photograph played a role. Clearly not knowing the background of the picture, a censor discussed how such photographs were produced by ISIS as part of their terror campaign, which is why they had to be censored. Again, the irony of the US military being mistaken for another dangerous organization is quite rich.

The makers of the documentary also didn’t set the record straight, which added another element that had me deeply worried — and this brings me back to the above: if photographs can be suppressed so easily on social media, then we’re essentially in the same situation the Chinese are in. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a government that’s censoring photographs or the algorithms of a US corporation — censorship is censorship, and these kinds of developments do not bode well for us.

After two hours, there was a (much less prominent) notification on my Instagram account that my post had been restored. Some censor might have looked at what I had posted. Having seen the documentary did (and does) not give me much confidence in the overall process — I might have just had luck.

I recently published an in-depth article about censorship on Instagram that focused mostly on the company’s essentially misogynistic treatment of the depiction of the female body. The algorithmic censorship of the Abu Ghraib photograph (much like the case around Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph) adds a different dimension to the overall problem at hand. It is not just that a corporation essentially decides which types of beauty are acceptable and not (“sexy” looking influencers in bikinis: OK; photographs of female bodies that do not subject themselves to such a blatant male gaze: no); on a larger scale, a bunch of people who know how to write code but who are not known for their insight into the humanities decide what we can remember — and what must be forgotten.

Given the scale of Facebook, that’s not just coding, that’s not just corporate decision making. That’s a form of politics.

That politics is a very grave danger to the free society we’re attempting to preserve while it’s under severe attack by an openly authoritarian and racist president and his enablers and supporters, the Republican Party. After all, what exactly is that “community” in the “Community Guidelines”? A community that is defined by fiat, by the words and actions of a few unelected greedy geeks — what kind of community is that?

Whatever it might be, one thing is certain: a free community it is not.