A new interactive exhibition by Rankin Creative seeks to re-platform those who have been unfairly censored - as well as foster positive dialogue about restrictions on visual content and ways to address arbitrary online suppression in the future.
The project - called THE UNSEEN - is open to anyone who has experienced content removal, promotion and ad banning, shadowbanning or account cancellation.
"Censorship is a necessary tool to prevent fake news, protect children and more. But it is often used inadvertently to silence marginalized voices," said British photographer, publisher, and film director Rankin, in a statement. Rankin is the founder of Ranker Creative.
Organizers said that the project has already generated significant interest, with hundreds of individuals and small businesses from around the world sharing their stories of being silenced online.
Those testimonies and the censored images will be included on THE UNSEEN website, which launches June 15. Additionally, some of these stories will be part of an exhibition at Europe's first NFT gallery - Quantus Gallery - in London's creative quarter, Shoreditch.
Rankin also made portraits of 13 UNSEEN community members, and these images have been turned interactive by an experiential design team, Media.Monks.
"We've had an incredible response so far, and we're just getting started," Rankin said in a statement.
"This is an important issue, and those affected deserve to have a voice in the policies that affect them on the platforms they love and build their businesses on."
Among The UNSEEN community members who have experienced censorship, nearly 30 percent said it was related to the female body, sexism or misogyny, while 10 percent attributed it to homophobia and queerphobia. Participants also felt they were censored due to politically-related experiences, fatphobia or discrimination against plus size people, racism and ableism.
Model, mother of two and activist Kelly Knox said her social media account has been shadowbanned, which she believes happened because of her visible disability - as posts in which her arm stump is shown receive less interaction than those where it is not displayed. Shadow banning is when users are blocked, muted or deprioritized without being informed of this change in how their content is being seen.
THE UNSEEN organizers pointed to inequitable enforcement of platform guidelines as well as instances where photographs that did not violate guidelines about nudity were censored - such as Lisha Zulkepli's image of her children, featured on Eye Mama Project.
Filmmaker, photographer and mother Karni Arieli started running Eye Mama Project in April 2021 as a way to collect images of what she calls the "mama gaze" - an inclusive interpretation of motherhood, family and the home.
However, Eye Mama Project, which has now grown to more than 12,000 followers, started getting censored soon after gaining momentum, Arieli told FotoFemmeUnited, noting that images of breastfeeding, skin-on-skin contact, birth and wholesome nuditiy were often targeted.
"It really is just true storytelling of motherhood by mothers who are photographers, and the images are just censored constantly," said Arieli, explaining that she has begun self censoring to prevent photographs from being taken down. "It's really affecting my curation quite deeply because I would love to show a lot more truth and narrative. The narrative being truthful is key to this project."
Being censored goes against sharing that narrative and empowering the mothers and their stories.
Arieli said she now curates the Eye Mama Project under constant threat of being silenced and her account being removed, which she has previously endured for about a week and was able to get reversed. She worries that the censorship of images showcasing motherhood is essentially shaming mothers and creators.
"How can we empower mothers if we are constantly telling them that they are misbehaving?" she said.
The UNSEEN also cited the disparity between restrictions on sexually suggestive posts, noting how images from sites like Playboy are left up on social media, while a video posted by Dr. Carolina Are (below) of her pole-dancing performance was censored.
Are, an Innovation Fellow at Northumbria University's Centre for Digital Citizens, researches the intersection between online abuse and censorship - and teaches pole-dancing. She spoke of how shadow banning has taken a toll on her work, comparing her Instagram account, which she started in 2012 and now has more than 22,000 followers, to the growth of her more recent TikTok account, which has amassed a following of nearly 350,000 followers. However, Are now says she is dealing with similar issues on her TikTok profile - her account has been deleted 4 times and she is now shadow banned.
"When your content is constantly deleted or it doesn't reach as many people, you feel like you are putting all of this digital labor into creating stuff that then doesn't get any views," Are said, "It feels like the opportunities and the promises of growth that the platforms offer doesn't really materialize to you - for reasons that are not privy to you or that are not explained to you by the platforms."
Are explained that the issue of censorship on creators particularly affects those that make their livings with their bodies, including pole dancers, sex workers, erotic artists and other performers.
"When that was my main source of income during my PhD, it was incredibly distressing for my mental health. This is despite the fact that I come from a very privileged position of having one foot in academia," she said.
In hopes of sparking change, Are launched a petition, calling on Instagram to be "more inclusive of nudity and sexuality, to allow marginalized communities to still earn a living during the pandemic, to educate young people and to allow self-expression." She is also gathering data for a study on malicious flagging.
Both Are and Ariela plan to visit THE UNSEEN exhibition once it opens.
The UNSEEN website is slated to launch on June 15 at 7pm BST. The exhibition will be open to the public from June 16-29 at Quantus Gallery 11-29 Fashion Street, London, E1 6PX.