Artists Concerned Over Instagram’s New “Sensitive Content” Controls

Some artists are urging Instagram users to change a new default setting on the app that limits “sensitive content,” potentially screening certain artworks and other images. The feature, launched this week, is meant to help users decide how much content deemed “upsetting or offensive” appears on their Explore tab, a section of the app that shows posts curated by Instagram’s algorithm based on account activity.

The social media giant defines sensitive content as “posts that don’t necessarily break our rules, but could potentially be upsetting to some people” — citing violent or sexually explicit images, such as “pictures of people in see-through clothing,” and those that promote the use of regulated substances like tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. Users can now choose to whether to “limit” these posts, “allow,” or “limit even more,” the most restrictive level.

But some artists worry the new controls will impact the reach of their work, particularly because “limit” was set as the default setting by Instagram without alerting its users.

“We don’t know how this will affect artists yet, but the fact is that overnight, everybody’s settings all of a sudden included an option to limit the content they see to varying degrees,” said artist Clarity Haynes, who posted screenshots on her Instagram showing how to deactivate the option. “You have to actually choose to not have your content filtered, and people who don’t know how to do that won’t even know it happened.”

“I think of it as a kind of sanitizing of art, and it will most negatively affect artists who are pushing the envelope,” Haynes told Hyperallergic. “Decorative art that is not challenging will be fine, but LGBTQIA+ artists, artists of color, and feminist artists will probably be affected by this.”

Instagram and Facebook, its parent company, have a complicated track record with artists, particularly when it comes to censorship. In 2019, the company held a roundtable with artists who said they were affected by Instagram’s policies on nudity, including the hyperrealist painter and photographer Marilyn Minter. The platform has also come under scrutiny for screening images of female nipples and not moderating male nipples in the same way.

In its Community Guidelines, Instagram says it does not allow nudity except in some contexts, including “photos of paintings and sculptures,” but it previously banned artist Betty Tomkins from the app altogether. In a recent post of one of her characteristic works depicting female genitalia, Tomkins added a caption addressed to Instagram’s review team: “This is a photo of a painting which is allowed under your community guidelines. Please leave it and my account alone.”

Haynes says Instagram’s move to set a default limit on certain content jars with the platform’s public identity as a democratic space for artists to operate freely, outside of the confines of the traditional art world.

“There’s this perception of Instagram being an equalizer that gets everyone past the gatekeepers, and this is the opposite of that,” Haynes said. “The fact that people can opt out means no one really will know the reach of their posts, and I think that’s going to further marginalize artists who are already marginalized. This is another nail in the coffin for art that is challenging.”

Instagram has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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