The UNSEEN online censorship project

The cat is out of the bag: I can finally announce that I took part in Rankin Creative’s The UNSEEN project, shining a light on platforms’ censorship of creators. Here, I talk about why I joined The UNSEEN, sharing some behind-the-scenes stories and some information about what this means for my research.

Pixelated portrait by @rankinarchive (more of that later)

What is The UNSEEN?

The UNSEEN is a community-first project by RANKIN CREATIVE, the London independent end-to-end creative agency behind Hunger Magazine founded by photographer and director Rankin, to use the group’s platform to create space for those unfairly de-platformed online.

Bringing together hundreds of people of different identities, backgrounds and experiences, the UNSEEN showcases the breadth and human consequences of unfair censorship practices to push for better, community-focused solutions to online moderation and fairer working practices for creators.

Driven by RANKIN CREATIVE’s OPALUKE (Opal Turner and Luke Lasenby), THE UNSEEN is open to anyone who has experienced content removal, account removal, promotion/ad ban or shadow banning. Those who joined (for now, over 300 creators), believe they have been censored for the following reasons:

  • Sexism and misogyny 29.6%
  • Homo/queerphobia 10%
  • Politics 7%
  • Fatphobia 5%
  • Ableism 4%
  • Racism 4%.

The diversity and breadth of content pictured is striking, but I find the emphasis on sexism particularly poignant.

I bet you’re here for me to spill the tea on why I joined though, so here it is!

How and why did I get involved with The UNSEEN?

Earlier this year, I received an Instagram DM from Hunger Magazine asking me to join the project, on the back of the petition against unfair censorship I and a variety of activists, sex workers and creators started in 2020 and following my research and advocacy work against de-platforming.

Back then, the team behind Hunger and RANKIN CREATIVE were looking for submissions and for people to shoot as part of the project. I had no idea how it would evolve, but I decided to take part and to share it with my followers. As I mentioned in my Instagram stories at the time, the project wasn’t paid. But as someone who cut her teeth in public relations, I joined because I’m a big believer in amplifying my research’s impact through PR, awareness raising and social media marketing. Being photographed by Rankin, who shot everyone from Kate Moss to The Rolling Stones, wasn’t only an honour: it was an opportunity to raise further awareness about unfair online censorship with the mainstream media, with brands and with the creative world.

Of course, being able to join projects for free is a privilege which I’m fully aware not everybody has, which is why I have often written and said that existing as a creator (or as a person, really) is a constant negotiation of where you put your work, how much time you spend on it and how much you charge for it in a world of shifting priorities.

Either way, in this case raising awareness was important to me not just because I got most of my jobs in PR, academia and pole dance by establishing a media presence, but also because awareness can sometimes create momentum for change. And, at present, awareness about censorship is patchy and utilitarian.

I’m at the crossing of different groups that deal with online censorship and online harms – from academia to activism, from pole dance to influencers / creators – and I’m noticing two main tendences in discussions around online moderation and online nudity: 

  1. In research, people talk about the precarious labour of all sorts of content creators and users, discussing the unfair governance their content receives due to the opacity of platforms. However, this seems to exist in the silos of the specific creator population / field that those researchers are addressing;
  2. In activism / content creation / pole dance, a lot of people complain about censorship by saying “[insert topic they post about] is not porn,” e.g. “art is not porn.”

Both approaches fail to address the systemic issues and general whorephobia that is at the centre of platforms’ governance of nudity – which is often not even solely due to platforms’ design, but due to them responding to legislation which was designed to de-platform sex and sex workers. 

I’m talking about FOSTA/SESTA, the exception to Section 230 of the US Telecommunications’ act which was designed to remove sex trafficking from online spaces, but which ended up making platforms liable for being seen to be facilitating sex trafficking. As a result, platforms began to over-censor anything mildly sex work related, conflating sex trafficking – a crime – with sex work – a job – and then trickling down to many forms of sexual expression and visible nudity. I really recommend Hacking / Hustling and Zahra Stardust‘s research on this to find out more about it from expert voices.

It has now been widely reported that FOSTA/SESTA was pushed by lobbies of far-right, evangelical extremists in the US. Sex workers have reported it makes them unsafe. This law has wreaked havoc not just on sex workers, but on sexual expression and on the internet in general all over the world – meanwhile, only in one case someone has been successfully found to be in breach of FOSTA/SESTA. 

So as researchers, as activists, as creators, as campaigners, as performers, we can’t really say: “This is happening to us and it’s wrong” without acknowledging that you can’t really solve censorship of whatever content without also fighting for sex workers’ right to exist online. 

Sex workers have been experimenting with and building the way we access digital technology before average users. Yet, there’s a lot of stigma and taboo against sex workers, which makes a variety of institutions – from media to academia – not want to engage with them and which makes some sex workers not want to engage in return. Because of this, groups with anti-sex work agendas with palatable but damaging narratives get the lion share of attention. Instead, we should use testimonies and research by sex workers to show that they themselves know best when it comes to keeping themselves safe. 

I’m very tired of reading “art is not porn,” because even if it may not be, it’s censored regardless. It’s time to stop thinking you’re better than others because you don’t have your titties out for work. So for me, this project and this campaign are a chance to reach mainstream readers to remind them that when nudity, sex and sex work are censored, we all suffer. We need to stop acting as if we’re not fighting against the same system – and those of us with the privilege to be visible when talking about censorship need to use that visibility to make this convo about sex and bodily freedom. To promote this message with the creative industries in particular, I’m also joining Rankin for a panel in Cannes next week.

The portrait

… Of course I also joined because I was very keen on looking fucking cute but savage in this Naughty Thoughts set kindly gifted to me by Pole Junkie, and on being shot by a star photographer. DUH!

You can find my portrait below and my story here.

Portrait by @rankinarchive, outfit by Pole Junkie

Shooting this was a lot of fun! Opal and Luke indulged my wish to actually be almost butt-naked to make a point (which has proven to be a great strategy to get people to listen you, it turns out) and Rankin immediately put me at ease. It was nice not to have to do my own hair and make-up for a change, and the RANKIN CREATIVE / Hunger HQ were lit.

The UNSEEN’s Launch

To launch the project, RANKIN has partnered with digital-first Quantus Gallery in Shoreditch, London to hold a public exhibition. The exhibit features the posts and several of the stories submitted by entrants, alongside portraits of 13 of the UNSEEN community photographed by Rankin and made interactive by the experiential design team at Media.Monks

…which means that if you go, you get to see my portrait! Hung in an actual gallery!

When you get to Quantus, make sure you scan the QR code upon arrival to unveil our portraits arising from the pixelated artworks. My friend Penny and I forgot to do it and only understood it at the end, lol.

As you make your way in, creators’ stories and the content or accounts we had deleted will appear on screens. It was very surreal to see myself pole dancing in my little living room and in the studio through a screen! Very meta (with a lower case ‘m’ because ew), and particularly cathartic given the amount of times I’ve had to fight with platforms to keep this content up.

A room in the gallery has also literally been covered in content, artwork and profiles that had been deleted. It’s very powerful to see all of this in a physical space, highlighting the amount of content that has been censored – it really does make a statement on the offline impacts of censorship.

The exhibit is open to the public from the 16th – 24th June, at Quantus Gallery 11-29 Fashion Street, London, E1 6PX.

My next research projects

I realised I haven’t really announced this on the blog (although I have on social media): I have a new job! I’m currently working as an Innovation Fellow at Northumbria University’s Centre for Digital Citizens. So another important reason why I joined The UNSEEN is that I am currently collecting data for my new research project, looking into whether and if reporting has an effect on content or account deletion on Instagram and TikTok. If you have been affected, consider taking part here.

Keep an eye out for my next research projects, too! I’ll be looking into brands and influencers’ experiences of shadowbanning in a joint study with the University of Michigan, so keep your eyes peeled and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.

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