Something’s up with activist Instagram in Italy: the accounts of high-profile feminist, queer, LGBTQIA+, survivor sex- and body-positive activists are being deleted, sometimes twice in a week. I spoke with some of them to try and figure out what’s happening.
What’s happening to Italian activists on Instagram?
If you’re a sex worker, a pole dancer, a sex- or body-positive influencer, then account deletions, social media censorship and shadowbanning aren’t news to you. And if you follow me, you may already know that my Instagram account was deleted without a warning this summer when I was in Italy, and was luckily recovered within a day. In the past two weeks however, the accounts of Italian activists who speak out on gender equality, LGBTQIA+ issues, body positivity, gender-based violence or sex education are being deleted… shortly after facing backlash for some of their comments or content.
Some of these users, like London resident and founder of survivors support group @suns_endrapeculture Benedetta Lo Zito, are my friends. Some of them are people I follow and admire because of their work.
They have several things in common: they are very vocal activists campaigning against the patriarchy and for marginalised people; their accounts were disabled – some without warning – or are under threat of deletion; and they have received no information from Instagram as to why this is happening beyond the automated deletion notifications.
Fraught Italian politics and its effect on activists
The political situation in Italy is extremely fraught at the moment, and the LGBTQIA+ community in particular is mourning. Yesterday (27 October), the Italian far-right killed off the DdL Zan, a bill that would have made violence against LGBTQIA+ people and disabled people and misogyny a hate crime, in the senate. This is what it could have done:
A bill supported by activists and marginalised people alike, the DdL Zan (Disegno di Legge Zan, as a law created by Alessandro Zan, the politician who wrote it) found opposition in the Catholic Church and the Italian far-right, who argued the law would have suppressed freedom of expression and promoted “homosexual propaganda” in schools.
The Italian far-right is extremely active on social media, so much that Matteo Salvini’s La Lega has built a whole propaganda infrastructure called “La Bestia” (the Beast), which according to news organisation Open consists in harnessing both software, media monitoring and social media to unleash armies of users against progressive issues.
Telegram groups to incite hate and encourage people to comment against specific individuals or campaigns are some of the techniques used by the Beast. As a result, these groups seem to have become a powerful tool to spread online hate and propaganda in Italy too – even when not connected to La Lega, so much that the social network recently had to shut down swathes of anti-vax channels in my country. As you will read below, Italian progressive activists seem to believe that it’s Telegram groups that are triggering their deletions.
Benedetta Lo Zito
Benedetta Lo Zito has been under the fire of what she calls “social media shitstorms” for a few months now. A queer feminist activist now living in London, she has been at the forefront of sexual assault awareness campaigns in Italy, and she regularly talks about activism, queer rights and body positivity. She told Mashable Italia that she thinks she might have ended up in Telegram groups that flag her, because even when posting pictures within Instagram’s community guidelines, her posts are regularly taken down.
This October, Benedetta’s profile was disabled for a weekend, only to be restored after I emailed my Facebook Policy contacts about her. Shortly after, it was disabled again.
Benedetta’s Instagram profile is her main outlet to share her message. She told me that losing her account feels like being “silenced, another time,” and like being “defeated and neglected by a system bigger than you.” But she remains hopeful: “Every system is made of people – that means we can change them. We can beat them.”
Valeria Fonte is an Italian feminist activist and influencer who raises awareness about image-based sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Her profile had already been deleted twice this year. We were recently mentioned in the same article by Italian news site Open, for reacting to comments by a “career expert” who suggested women should stop “showing their ass and tits” if they want to be taken seriously in the workplace.
This was Valeria’s video response, where she criticises his patriarchal, chauvinistic comments.
After her response video went viral, and after she continued addressing similar sexist comments by other accounts or Italian public figures, her account was deleted last week. She got it back for a few hours, only to be deleted again. In the story below and on her back-up account which was also deleted shortly after, she defines Instagram’s governance as fascist, and the deletion of her profile as violent. She argues her profile’s aim is mainly to educate, sharing linguistic and sociological analyses and only some personal photos. But that might have already been too much for Instagram.
At the time of writing, both Valeria’s profiles are back. Yet, as it happened in my case, she has not received any specific explanations as to what happened, and why they were deleted.
*I tried to reach Valeria for an extra comment but didn’t hear back.
Tei Gi defines herself as the first Italian sexfluencer. Through her blog and her nearly 20,000 followers strong Instagram profile she educates her audience about pleasure. She has a weekly speaking slot on the Italian Radio DeeJay – in short, a well-know, fairly mainstream sex educator acting within Instagram’s set of rules. She told me: “To be honest, before today the only experience of deletion I had was when one of my stories was removed just over a month ago. I had my hand close to my crotch, but I was wearing trousers. It was a post about masturbation. I never even posted naked pictures, or pictures of my nipples.”
On the 13th of October, her account was removed. She says that the night before, one of her reels went viral, and was viewed by about 800,000 people. Through this reel, she gained over 1,200 followers in 24 hours. She’s at a loss as to why she lost her profile: “Could the spike in following after this reel have played a part? Maybe Instagram thought I was a bot?”
“The world came crashing down on me,” she says, describing when she logged in to find her account had been disabled. She was starting to monetise her content through brand partnerships, so much that she had even left her day job, and losing that outlet meant losing work opportunities.
Doing her job had already become difficult enough: “How can you educate people about safe sex and pleasure if on Instagram you are having to censor words like ‘vulva,’ ‘eroticism,’ ‘masturbation’ and ‘sex education’?”
Tei adds:”This deletion feels like violence, like a form of trauma. I haven’t just lost all my followers, but my content too, and my voice. I may sound like I’m exaggerating, but an experience like this, being deleted for doing sex education in a conservative country like Italy, hurts even more.”
While the activists above were all deleted without warning, trans activist @elia.lien still has his profile – but received a warning he is going to lose it. He says he is tired, because his account has been under attack for a year now.
“My profile seems permanently shadowbanned for no reason, my posts and stories – which don’t include any dangerous or violent content – are being deleted because they somehow violate community guidelines. This profile has ended up in Telegram or Twitch groups who have done nothing but post hate and violence on my Instagram. Yet, even though I have flagged these accounts, their profiles are still up, while mine is at risk of deletion.”@elia.lien
Elia’s profile is a much needed haven and education hub for trans people in Italy, a country where, as you’ve seen, homophobia and transphobia are not taken seriously enough to be made a hate crime. Elia says: “My profile is almost two years old. Everyday, I help thousands of people find somewhere to stay, find refuges or funds. It’s frustrating to be flagged for no reason.”
Before receiving the notification that his profile was going to be deleted, Elia received 15 violent direct messages and a series of violent comments. He feels so defeated that he has begun blocking them without interacting or flagging, because he says Instagram doesn’t deem their comments to be against their guidelines. “Why does someone who says I’m a rapist and that I want to rape little girls have more of a right to stay on this platform than I do?”
Elia thinks the Telegram groups that are harassing him and other activists are run “by people who hate what we talk about, and the fact that we’re trying to fight stereotypes.” He adds: “They’re probably mainly cisgender men who are afraid to lose their privilege in society. So they organise mass flagging raids, commenting and DMing.”
*Update: On October 29, Elia lost his profile. You can now find him at @elia.lien02.
Automated processes or mass flagging against activists? Questions raised by the deletions
What do we know about what’s happening? Not much. Leading from my own experience of deletion, platforms don’t say much beyond claiming mistakes or false positives are to blame. While Instagram press are not answering me this time, I have contacted Facebook policy repeatedly about these activists’ accounts and they claim to be checking. They informed me Benedetta’s accounts had been reinstated when it was deleted the first time, but I have had no news yet about her second deletion, and about the other accounts.
It’s difficult to verify whether those behind conservative Telegram groups are indeed to blame, or to fully understand why these activists’ accounts are being taken down, when users don’t receive any feedback or information from Instagram. You’d think the platform would want to put an end to all conspiracy theories about their moderation, but with no answer from them, users are left to guess, and their guesses about Instagram don’t do the platform any favours.
This situation raises many questions about moderation of activism, nudity, sexuality and marginalised people. Is this a glitch brought by automated moderation influenced by conservative legislation like FOSTA/SESTA? Are these targeted campaigns? Why do users receive no warning and/or little information about the specifics of their violation? Why is the appeal process so difficult and slow, and why does Instagram not have a team of human moderators acting as deletion support, speaking directly with users?
These activists’ stories seem to be yet another example of how a blend of flawed infrastructure mixed with poor appeal processes and general online inequalities affects women and marginalised users while aiding abusers, as I’ve argued in my Feminist Media Studies paper.
Whether it’s an algorithmic fail or targeted mass flagging, or a mixture of both, it seems that, as usual, the most marginalised become affected by Instagram’s governance. In Tei’s words: “Instagram is playing with our mental health. You can’t lose your job – because this is a job for many creators – for an algorithmic glitch!”