Here’s the thing about Instagram and Facebook. They use artificial intelligence (AI) to find and remove exploitative photographs, particularly those that include child nudity. That’s good, right? Absolutely.
The problem is the AI doesn’t always know when the photo isn’t that of a naked girl, but rather a long-haired shirtless boy. And that’s why moms on social media are angry.
Take Tori Spooner. The Jacksonville mother has a four-year-old son named Parker. Parker has long hair and is often shirtless in photographs Spooner posts to her Instagram page. Why?
“We’re at the beach all the time,” Spooner told BuzzFeed News. “He, like, never wears a shirt.”
In fact, Parker participates in beach cleanups because he’s a stand-up dude. That he would be shirtless in his mom’s pics makes perfect sense to me. But not to AI.
A few things happened to Spooner’s photographs of Parker. First, Facebook flagged a photo of Parker shirtless at the beach while wearing swim trunks. Spooner received a notice from Facebook telling her the pic was sexual and warning her not to post that kind of content again.
Well, Spooner thought that was ridiculous, because it is. But next thing she knows, Facebook flags another photo of Parker, and this time Spooner was banned from the social media site for a couple of days.
“Every time I post a picture of Parker shirtless, it gets flagged because they recognize him as a girl,” Spooner told First Coast News.
It didn’t end with Facebook. Instagram (owned by Facebook) also started flagging Spooner’s photos. There were more bans. And then Spooner’s Instagram account, which had 6,000 followers and years of photographs, was deleted.
“Four years of photos,” Spooner said. “All of my friends that I can’t get back.”
According to BuzzFeed News, Facebook’s and Instagram’s guidelines “forbid photos of genitalia and unclothed children above toddler age.” That includes pictures of nipples for any girl who is older than a toddler. But Spooner’s photos of Parker don’t violate those guidelines.
Spooner wasn’t getting a response to her appeals from Instagram. So, she started a new Instagram page and posted a photo of Parker, shirtless, holding a sign saying he’s a boy and Instagram should stop deleting his pics.
Well, guess what? Plenty of other moms were having the same problem. So, they all started posting photos of their shirtless boys, with quotes like “Stop censoring me! I’m a boy! Male nipples are not against your guidelines!” and “Dear Instagram. I’m a boy. I just have long hair. Quit deleting my pictures! #longhairedboyrevolution.”
“I originally just started it kind of for us,” Spooner said. “But so many other people were commenting saying they’d make a sign too, and it started spreading.”
After the media contacted Instagram, the company issued a mea culpa and restored Spooner’s account. She even got all her photos back.
“We are sorry for the mistake,” the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We err on the side of protecting children and for safety reasons we remove some images that show nude or partially nude children. Even when this content is shared with good intentions, it could be used by others in unanticipated ways.”