How Are Trans Bodies Monitored on Instagram? Meta's Oversight Board Takes Up Its First Gender Identity Case

On Tuesday, Meta announced its oversight board would take up a case related to gender identity and nudity on Instagram with the aim of offering policy recommendations to the company. The announcement marks the first time the oversight board has examined the treatment of trans bodies on Facebook and Instagram, a representative for the board confirmed to Rolling Stone, and the resulting recommendations have the potential to impact millions of trans and non-binary creators who struggle with censorship on the platforms. 

As creators everywhere know, even a brief disruption in access on the platform can affect a person’s livelihood. Vanniall, a trans model who uses social media to drive traffic to her monetized OnlyFans account, says she has had her entire account removed three times in the five years since she’s been using social media for her work, most recently this month. “I read the guidelines and I try to stay within the lines, because social media is my money,” she says, noting that an account shutdown is devastating to her income. “It goes from having 10,000 people see you a day to none.” She believes posing in underwear as a trans woman who has not had surgery places her at a disadvantage when it comes to her content getting taken down. “I just feel like my front side is off limits,” she says. “Why is my body inherently sexual and then inherently bad? It just doesn’t seem fair to me.”

Ashley, a trans activist who has worked in tech, says the main issues with censorship of trans people’s bodies on social platforms indeed involve “bulge” or, as in the case Meta is examining, a trans man showing his bare chest. “Quite often trans men are getting taken down for being shirtless, whether they have top surgery or not,” Ashley says, “Which shouldn’t matter. Plenty of cis men have boobs.”  

According to a press release from Meta, the case chosen by the board specifically involves two pictures of topless people posted by the same Instagram account. The account, which the oversight board keeps private in every case, is maintained by a couple who identify as transgender and nonbinary. In the first photo, from 2021, the two people are standing topless in a pond with bandages covering their nipples, according to Meta’s description. The caption indicates that one of the people had “a date for top surgery” and invited followers to donate to a Pateron fundraiser to pay for the procedure. In the second post, from 2022, only one person poses shirtless — the other is fully clothed — and the shirtless person is covering their nipples with their hands. Like the first photo, this caption explains that the person covering their nipples will soon have top surgery and invites users to purchase shirts as part of their fundraiser.

The oversight board’s announcement reveals both posts underwent a barrage of reporting and reviewing by automated systems as well as by humans before being taken down. Both were initially reported by Meta’s automated moderation system for violating sexual solicitation guidelines. For the first photo, the initial report was closed without being reviewed. Three users then reported that photo for pornography and self harm. Human moderators rejected those reports. When it was reported by a user for a fourth time, however, a human moderator decided it violated guidelines and took it down. For the second photo, human moderators rejected the automated system’s reports twice. Two users reported it but the automated system closed their reports. After the automated system flagged it for a third time, a human moderator looked at it and decided to take it down.

The users appealed the decision to Meta, but the company stood by its decision. They then appealed to the oversight board. “They explain that the breasts in the photos are not those of women and that it is important that transgender bodies are not censored on the platform especially when trans rights and access to gender-affirming healthcare are being threatened in the United States,” the board’s announcement states. Only after the oversight board took up the case did the company reverse its decision and restore the posts, saying they’d been removed “in error.”

The oversight board has opened a two-week comment period and is inviting input from the public on the platforms’ handling of content about gender confirmation surgeries, Meta’s policies on nudity and sexual solicitation as they relate to trans people, the role of social media as a forum for expression for trans people, and more.

Ashley believes unclear guidelines and a lack of transparency about the moderation process contribute to struggles trans and non-binary people face with censorship on Meta’s platforms. “We can be like, maybe don’t link to OnlyFans, but how [are you going] to make a living? Maybe don’t post anything scandalous. But if you, just standing there with your body visible through your clothing, is seen as disgusting to people, then there’s very little you can do about that,” she says. “If you can never tell who moderated you, who reported you and for what, you’re fucked. They can say they’re not going to police trans bodies like this, but unless there’s more transparent moderation, I’m not confident we’re gonna see any changes.”

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