British Columbia·Analysis

Should Facebook remove nude photos of topless women marching to #freethenipple?

Facebook took down nude images of women marching in a Go Topless parade in Vancouver, to the chagrin of organizers and supporters.

NOTE: This story includes nude photos and video of women marching in a Go Topless parade in Vancouver

Facebook took down nude images of women marching in a Go Topless parade in Vancouver, to the chagrin of organizers and supporters. (Adam Johnson)

NOTE: This story contains nude photos and video of women marching in Go Topless parade in Vancouver.

When Adam Johnson put up images on Facebook of women marching in Vancouver's Go Topless parade on Sunday, he didn't think it was anything special.

After all, being topless in public in B.C. is perfectly legal, and he was there to support the women who were marching.

But he was surprised to see that Facebook took down his videos. 

It wasn't that the photos were obscene or pornographic. It was simply videos of women marching in Vancouver with their nipples bared.

WARNING: Nude photos and video of women marching in Go Topless parade

5 years ago
Duration 0:33
Facebook took down this video of women marching topless in Vancouver 0:33

But Facebook and Instagram have very explicit rules on nudity and showing a woman's nipple — unless breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring or nude figures in art — is strictly against these social networks' community standards. 

The problem is that Facebook and Instagram's policies propagate the very sexist behaviour they want to avoid.

A blunt tool

Facebook says it is largely up to users to self-censor content before they post it online — that can be done by marking it as sensitive material and giving context in the caption. 

Otherwise, it warns there's a chance it might be flagged by another user and taken down.

Once the content is flagged, it's then reviewed by Facebook employees who vet it against the organization's community standards.

"We restrict the display of nudity, because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content — particularly because of their cultural background or age," says Facebook. 

"In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content.

As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes."

Misguided policies?

For Denise Belisle, one of the organizers of the Go Topless parade in Vancouver, Facebook and Instagram's policies are pure discrimination. 

"It should be the same for both men and women. If you can't show a female nipple, then you shouldn't be allowed to see a male nipple either," she said.

"There's a total lack of support for what we're trying to get here, which is equality."

Some, like Johnson, find it odd that Facebook will broadcast live graphic and chilling video of police shootings but won't allow nude women marching for their rights. 

And then's there the case of an Arizona-based photographer, whose Facebook photo of her husband comforting her young son in their shower was also taken down. 

Her child was violently ill with salmonella poisoning, and while the photo didn't violate Facebook's nudity guidelines, it kept getting reported and taken down by the site.

Alberto Mejia LeGresley, another Vancouver street photographer who posted photos of the Go Topless parade says he's frustrated that Instagram took down his content and has complained about it.

"I just find the whole thing ridiculous," Mejia LeGresley said. "You have to look at the whole context."

This photo of the Go Topless parade in Vancouver was taken down by Instagram. (Alberto Mejia LeGresley)

The tension between Facebook and its users

But should social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram determine what we as a society think is culturally acceptable?

While B.C. recognizes a women's right to go topless, other countries do not, and when these social media networks apply their rules, they are not considering the laws of individual country their content is seen in. 

Alfred Hermida, a UBC professor of social media and journalism, says that's where the tension lies.

"We see these platforms as ours. It's our space to express ourselves on social media," he said.

"But actually we're tenants of these social media networks and are therefore, subject to their rules."

And at the same time, also subject to the censorship of the most sensitive amongst us. 


Tamara Baluja is a producer for CBC Vancouver.


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