Something important that social media channels seem to ignore, is basic human condition. The more they attempt to erase people from existence, the more we will fight back, the more we will collectively gather, organize and demonstrate online or offline. We will share our common experiences, we will learn just exactly how far they go to keep individuals silenced, and we will discover precisely to what extent they do not even respect their own community guidelines. When it comes to unfair censorship, we can't and won't be stopped.
I'm talking about censorship, and the way it is (and is not) managed by social media channels. Earlier in 2022, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Opal Turner (@opalbecreating) and Luke Lasenby (@lukelasenby1) from Rankin Creative as they were launching an open call on the very topic, for what was supposed to be an article in Hunger Magazine. Due to the overwhelming response, the importance of the subject and the incredible testimonies, they immediately decided to put together an exhibition called The Unseen in London at Quantus Gallery. We're really grateful to have participated in this exhibition and to have helped with communication.
Opal took some time to speak to me after the frenzy of the exhibition calmed down to share her reflection on what took place, and to update me on what's happening now.
FFU: So what's been up? How are you?
OT: Not too bad, not too bad, there's just been a lot going on.
FFU: I can imagine. Can I just get a bit of a background of you both for our readers: what you do and what you both do at RANKIN?
OT: Yeah, of course. So, Luke and I started at RANKIN CREATIVE about a year ago. We're kind of an unconventional creative team in that one we're a couple and two, we don't divide ourselves completely by the Art Director/Copyrighter kind of norm of the industry. We're a bit more multidisciplinary than that. I also do strategy, I'm also a photographer and podcaster. Luke is also an illustrator and a brand designer. We work as creatives together, and even there a lot of the work we do isn't so traditional. We have a number of skills that are a little bit more broad than traditional. And, you know, we like to do a bunch of different things, and not restrict ourselves to one specific area, because we creative types are way too interested in everything. You can't do one thing.
FFU: Can you tell me a bit about what's been going on since the beginning of the Unseen conception and the whole idea of the project? I remember when I was there for the private viewing, Rankin mentioned that it was you that brought the initial idea to the table. How did all of this come about?
OT: Of course. So the origin of the story, is that we work at RANKIN CREATIVE which is part of a little group, we also have Hunger Magazine. The magazine was doing an issue on the Web3/Metaverse, exploring what are the positives and negatives of going into this new technology and this new kind of Internet.
We were thinking, there's so much opportunity for equality in Web3 and in the Metaverse because it is decentralized. It by nature, has the ability to be more equitable.
But what we're seeing, are tech companies largely following the same strategy, same ways of doing things that we've seen in existing social media companies like Meta and TikTok.
I have multiple kinds of chronic illnesses, and disabilities, so I'm very much in that space online. That's my social media bubble. So I saw lots and lots of experiences of being unfairly censored for sharing the experience of being disabled, essentially, censored for showing medical devices, etc. So before we get super excited about going into Web3 - which we are excited about- what can we learn from Web2? What are the lessons that we can actually take from what we've got right or what we've got wrong in social media? Because I think we can all agree there's good and bad in all of it. How can we encourage tech companies to not only sort that out in the existing technologies and platforms, but also move it forward into the emerging technologies and platforms? And encourage them to work in a slightly different way?
Because we know that unfair censorship i.e. censorship that's not equitable or is unclear, or quite frankly, is just targeting marginalised people is happening, and it's happening a lot, and there's been lots of work around it.
OT: And what we wanted to do was look at what had already been done, what were some great campaigns, some great people that have done wonderful work. Specifically, Salty was one of the big inspirations - they've done some incredible research and have themselves experienced Unfair Censorship. Also Nyome Nicholas-Williams, Gina Martin and Alex Cameron, who did a campaign about plus-size black women being censored for images that skinny white women are able to post on Instagram. They did incredible work, and we thought we're seeing this effect on A LOT of groups of people, particularly folk with marginalised identities. So we wanted to try and do something to engage more people.
OT: It is hugely marginalized communities, and it hits the most marginalised people, but it's also skinny white women and femme bodies. People we thought were not going to be affected by censorship anymore because surely we're past that, but we're really really not. And so we said ok, let's just give our power, our platforms, these opportunities. We have this platform, and when we as a company speak, or when Rankin speaks, people listen. So what can we do with that for these people who have lost their voice, who have lost their place on these platforms? We simply just wanted to give them our space, really, just give them our platform and understand how unfair this is. This is one small thing that we can do, is give our space.
And then, it just kind of blossomed quite rapidly into hundreds and hundreds of people sending us their stories and their imagery. And as I said we kept it broad, so entries really do, span the whole gamut, from disability to political views, for instance. And we suddenly thought oh, maybe we should do a bit more than just a little piece in Hunger about this. And, you know, we have these skills as well as these platforms, we work in communications. How can we use these skills to get these people that have been unfairly censored into spaces that they wouldn't otherwise get to be?
The first space was a gallery space, and that, you know, obviously is a space that a lot of creatives will never get to be in in a formal situation. And it's something that we do a lot as a company, is exhibitions and publishing etc.
OT: We also took a couple of members of the community, over at Cannes Lions (Shout out to LBB for the space and support), which is an advertising festival (the Oscars of our industry) to give them a stage and a place to speak. And speak to people who are involved in part in these practices, the ad industry by large is somewhat responsible for this issue. Because we are the ones that pay for advertising on these platforms, and therefore, you know, to a degree, we are sponsoring these unfair policies. So we wanted to make sure it was brought up there. And we've also done a piece of work with media.monks, we made an AR experience that was available at the exhibition and is also in print now.
The next steps for us are very much more tactical and much more strategic. So now that we have this incredible group of people, and hopefully we've earned their trust, we've got this archive, essentially, of what Unfair Censorship looks like.
OT: Our next question is: how can we actually change policy? And there are two ways we think about doing that.
One is direct dialogue with the platforms, and one is kind of a more grass roots operation that would either impact the platforms or would go beyond the platforms and go to the law-making and oversight level. So far, we've not been unable to actually get in a conversation with any of the platforms. They are very, very internalized. They've not been willing to speak to us. And so that's to a point, tying our hands a little bit, because we don't ever want this to be about vilifying platforms. We all know that we all will need them, which is part of the problem with the unfair practices, is that we do need their business tools. So we don't want to vilify or isolate these platforms from talking to us.
What we want is a dialogue with them. But at the same time, we need to get their attention. And we need to make sure that there's enough pressure on them that they are forced into talking to this community, which they haven't been so far. So the kind of ways that we're working on that are multiple, but our first step is to create a partnership with one of the charities that work in this space and has a lot of knowledge of working with the platforms themselves, but also of policymaking and government oversight etc. so hopefully you'll see some news on that soon!
If Meta doesn't want to talk to us, if TikTok doesn't want to talk to us, fine, but we're not going to stop pushing. If they don't want to do it in a direct way, you know, they have every right to that. But we're going to go around them then, and we're going to go to a governmental policy or oversight level. We're just in the initial stages of getting together a partnership with a fantastic charity who will hopefully be able to really start a full campaign to really change policy. This first stage has very much been about finding out the truth of this issue, raising awareness and, showing appreciation for the community and starting to platform them. But this next step is very action-driven and, as I say, much more strategic. We're really asking how can we actually make change and what are the best ways to get there?
FFU: And so now there's been some time to think and to process everything how are you feeling?
OT: It's incredible, the support and the love that we have had from them, and the honesty of what they've given us and how they've worked with us, is just incredible.
So, I mean, we never stop feeling very, very privileged to be in this position to get to know all of these people and have a small part in it, hopefully helping with this issue.
But since we did that initial launch, there's also definitely a sense of burn out, which I think we're all dealing with bit at the moment in our industry, there's definitely bit of burnout afterwards, emotionally as well as physically.
We took a week off, and you say to yourself, holy fuck. Yes, it's a lot to do, because we did this exhibition, there were 350 people in it. We were literally the ones sitting there until 2 in the morning, putting every single image we had received into the format for the exhibition. That's quite a lot of work, but then you sit back and you go well now, we have to actually fix it, which is even more work. Which is absolutely what we want to do, what we signed up for.
But as I said, we just have to think a lot more deeply about it, and have to be a lot more strategic in our moves, because of the way that these platforms work, and the way that this issue is so nuanced.
OT: There's a lot for us to learn still from great activists and campaigners, particularly. Again there have been wonderful campaigns that have changed the law, like Gina Martin, a huge inspiration to us. She made upskirting, AKA a picture of taking pictures under women's clothing illegal. Read her book, we're definitely referring to it for our work! But despite it's prevalence, that's very clearly wrong, that is invading someone's space and taking a photo of the genitalia is very, very clearly wrong. And even so she struggled for a year, and she worked her tits off to make that happen.
In some ways, that's much simpler, whereas censorship is very much a two-pronged kind of tool. I would say a tool that these platforms are using both well and poorly. I was actually just reading about one of the things that is happening at the moment. People are talking about monkeypox vaccinations a lot in the queer community, as they should do. They're trying to advertise that you can get it free, and so on. And the information that Meta keeps throwing up in reaction to the term 'vaccination' is actually around COVID.
So there's a lot of dialogue that I've seen around the fact that because this is something that has so far been seen to be affecting the LGBTQIA+ community, Meta haven't felt it necessary to provide the proper information for this specific virus and this vaccination as they did with COVID. It's one of those things when they are trying to censor in a good way, it's still harming marginalized communities. So it is a more complex issue.
I think, it's going to be a learning curve, and I'm sure we're going to get it wrong at times, and we have already - but we're finding the best ways around that and the best ways to jump that hurdle of people thinking censorship is a good thing in the first instance.
FFU: Are there any, discoveries you've made since then that you were very surprised or shocked about?
OT: I think the biggest discovery, was how many people are affected that you would not think are particularly marginalized anymore, like the conventionally Western definition of attractive, white, skinny, blonde women who are in a bikini. I see this all over Instagram all the time and so that in some ways is an even more hidden part of it. I wonder how many women are getting shadowbanned for posting holiday pics!
I think there's a certain amount of the experiences there that we've got in the archive that are potentially genuine accidents, from the algorithm's perspective. We've also realized how poor the platforms are at using the tools that they have made to protect people. There is not more than literally one or two people in the 350 plus entries we've got who said that they actually got a sensitive content filter put on top of their posts. It is literally a tiny step so that you choose to see the content, which is one of the tools made to protect people, to censor appropriately, but even that is used wrongly!
That should still be a tool that they should be utilizing for any content that they think is age-inappropriate or needs to be opted into - it makes sense.
Somehow though, their go-to is every time to remove content or remove the person or essentially massively shadow ban them in that it massively downgrades them on the algorithms. It's really aggressive.
FFU: Going back to the topic of a lack of response from social media channels - I spoke to Dr. Carolina Are/Hades (@bloggeronapole) because I was so fascinated after you told me about her. She told me that she, at least on one occasion, was able to get in contact with Instagram. I was so surprised, but she actually had spoken to somebody there.
OT: Carolina is an absolute godsent. She's been so helpful throughout the project. And I think what we're going to do is, as we go forward, start using some of the people, especially Carolina, because she's got such she's in such a great position to help. Not only is she wonderful, she's got an academic understanding of the issues as well as the personal experience of the issues.
It's going to be a long one, but it's going to be worthwhile. I'm absolutely confident.