Of the many reasons why social media platforms should resist pressure to “voluntarily” censor their users, one stands out: history shows that they will do it badly, taking down valuable and lawful content in the name of enforcing community standards. The result: practical speech discrimination. 

Facebook’s adult content policy is a textbook example. Since its early days, the platform has banned nearly all forms of nudity. But from day one, it has created reporting processes that conflate mere nudity with sexuality, and sexuality with pornography, and has applied different standards to feminine bodies than to masculine ones.

And the same double standards seem to apply to advertisements. First, the conflation: Facebook’s advertising policy explicitly bans “nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.” Thanks to this policy, an ad from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy promoting regular health checkups, was rejected for violating Facebook’s advertising guidelines “for language that is profane, vulgar, threatening or generates high negative feedback”—the language in question? “You’re so sexy when you’re well.” Now, the double standard: all of the images used as examples of “inappropriate ads” are of women.

The latter inconsistency is particularly galling given that activists have been challenging Facebook’s gender politics for years. Nonetheless, although Facebook says its policies are intended to apply to all genders, the actual application has never been consistent or fair. For example, the company allows hookup apps to advertise, but has banned images of fat women on the grounds that they promote unhealthy behavior (the company apologized after significant press coverage). 

Most recently, journalist Sarah Lacy complained that advertisements for her book—entitled The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug—had been rejected for containing the U-word...meanwhile, many users were recently served an ad containing a graphic depiction of a penis-stretching device from a verified account.

An image of the book "The Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug" on the left, and a graphic ad on the right.

Author Sarah Lacy says Facebook refused to advertise the book title on the left. Facebook accepted the advertisement on the right.

In the midst of ongoing political divisions, it’s easy to dismiss an issue like this as trivial, but everyday censorship can have a serious impact on social media users. Reports received by Onlinecensorship.org demonstrate the centrality of Facebook to many individuals’ lives—users who have received temporary or permanent suspensions often express despair at having been disconnected from their friends and families, while others (particularly those in creative industries) have cited professional consequences as a result of bans. 

Facebook’s regulations on adult content and nudity disproportionately affect women and transgender individuals, and its advertising policies are no different. These policies are discriminatory and inconsistently applied, often resulting in censorship of marginalized populations while other, more privileged users are not held to the same standard. We recognize that private companies, including Facebook, have the right to set and enforce whatever regulations on content they choose to apply on their own platforms. However, companies should apply their chosen policies consistently and equally, with clearly defined due process procedures available to users when their content is removed. We call on Facebook to apply equal treatment to content, and consistent application of their policies.