Michael Stokes is a well known photographer with a thriving business. His beautifully staged images of physically fit men are familiar to many. He's also a photo collector and historian who recently produced a book with Taschen on WW2 photos of soldiers at ease and quite naked.
Stokes has a large following on Facebook, with more than 260,000 likes, but he says the experience there has been befuddling and frustrating. Stokes says that, according to Facebook's own standards, he has not broken the rules of what's allowed and yet photos repeatedly get censored. He suspects homophobic users are reporting his page and trying to get him banned, but the inner-workings of Facebook's moderation system are opaque. Most recently, Stokes' account was blocked from posting altogether, only to be reinstated after appealing.
Complaints to Facebook are regularly met with apologies and reinstatements, only to have his work removed again. The Advocate contacted Facebook for comment about Stokes' case and received what is becoming a fairly standard explanation from a spokesman: “We mistakenly removed a post from this Page after it was reported to us. As our team processes more than one million reports each week, we occasionally make a mistake. We apologize for the inconvenience that it caused.”
Facebook often faces controversy over exactly what is allowed on the social network, and it often issues public apologies when it turns out a moderator somewhere has removed something in error. In full disclosure, The Advocate and our sister brands — Out magazine, Gay.net and more — have all experienced moments when posts are removed by Facebook, the accounts suspended and then met with reinstatement when Facebook staff is contacted and reviews the case.
The problem has existed a long time. For example in 2011 the Internet was outraged after a photo was banned of a gay couple kissing in the British television show, Eastenders. Facebook said it was a mistake and apologized for the inconvenience then, as well.
We spoke with Stokes by email and he chronicled what he sees as an ongoing doublestandard in moderating content with an LGBT appeal, versus straight appeal.
The Advocate: What was the first photograph you recall being censored? And what happened with that?
Michael Stokes: The first one was of Alex Minsky, February 2013. There was an uproar when people found out that Facebook had deleted a photo of a Marine amputee who was becoming famous as an underwear model. Many people made Alex's photo their profile photo in protest. You can read some of the details in the link here. Facebook apologized (in an email), and Facebook even involved its PR department because of the media inquiry by this periodical. However, the photo was again removed soon after they reinstated it. I tried to get a hold of the PR department at FB, and they ignored my inquiries.
Tell us about your experiences about being banned.
My big ban occurred in December, 2013 when the photo of Alex (the 20 percent off Veteran's Day image) was removed. That was a 30-day ban. I again contacted Facebook Public Relations and they ignored my calls and emails, some of which I still have. This was an interesting situation because I believe I know who reported the photo. It was most likely a gay graphics designer who stole one of my photos and used it for a bar ad. He and I were going back and forth on what he had done, and his employer made him pay a license fee for image usage. So, Facebook's reporting system is an effective revenge tool.
Do you think that these decisions are being made by Facebook on their own, or it is because people have flagged the material as offensive?
Since Facebook will not communicate with me about any of this, I have no idea how things work. Just when I think I understand the rules, Facebook surprises me, removes something and bans me. Their reporting system is definitely a factor. I have some people who hate me so much they sit on my page and report everything.
Give us a recounting of the most recent turn of events.
Two weeks ago Facebook locked me out of my account and told me that my personal Facebook account was going to be forced merged into my photography page. They said that I cannot discuss my work on my personal page, that it is in effect a business page and will be merged. My friend list will be converted into "likes" on my business page. There was an appeal process, which I opted to take. Along with a list of requirements, I had to declare that I would use my page for personal use only. I also had to submit government ID. Within about 24 hours, Facebook let me back onto my pages, and did not force merge [the two pages]. I believe this was prompted by people hunting down my personal page and reporting it. I didn't have any photography posts on my personal page, so all they could do was report it for something else.
Last week I published a photo of a man nude holding a rooster cap over his junk, full covered (similar to the above image). It was getting reported left and right, sometimes you get a notice from Facebook. I was seeing how much that photo was getting reported, and I received a threat from a woman in Texas who told me that if I did not remove the rooster photo, she would "ruin me." I am attaching her threat. [See below]
Shortly after that my book cover was removed for violating community standards. This is the image that Facebook reinstated. So, obviously the woman found a weak spot, and I realized that I had more images of my book up, so I deleted all of them. Then I decided I would clean up my page, because that is what Facebook told me to do. They gave me a 24-hour ban. When the ban was lifted, I decided was going to do a slow kill to my most controversial photos. I guessed that it was not what the photo showed or didn't show, that it was how often it gets reported. So, I decided the rooster photo was going to go. I posted it on my page, announced that I was going to remove it, and that if people wanted to pull it to their desktop before I deleted it. I also posted the woman's threat, letting them know why I was removing it.
The next day I got another image pulled by Facebook, and a warning. The image was of a man with a chain. I noticed that ESPN had nude athletes up on their Facebook page, and I didn't understand why they could have full butt shots, while I had this man nude from the side. So, I cropped the chain image with a link to my Twitter for the full version. I also asked my followers why ESPN could have nudes, but we couldn't. Well, many of my followers went to the ESPN page and started reporting their photos. My followers were sending me screenshots of Facebook's written decision not to remove the ESPN photos. So, we concluded that one way you can post male nudes on Facebook is if you are a big brand or if you advertise on Facebook.
I got very angry, as were my followers. Many of my followers were pissed, posting on my page that this is an attack on the LGBT community, but I know that it goes beyond that — it is also a feminist issue. So, I decided to post a commentary on this. Wanting to bring balance to my commentary, I decided to post a provocative gay image, the two cops, along with a hate collage I made, but at the same time a graph showing that most of my followers are female.
So, when I posted this, the page started going a bit viral. My reach that week was 2.7 million, so all this controversy was getting heated, spread to the right people and to the wrong people. Then the hate messages started coming in on the post of the two cops. I have some screenshots of it as well. So after well over 1,000 comments, and lots of arguing and fighting on the thread, Facebook force logged me out removed the post and banned me for 30 days.
I will send you a separate email with the post contents, the one that got me banned. For the record, this "cock" photo was never removed by Facebook. I did it voluntarily — after Facebook told me to clean up my page and the threat from the Bible lady.
Today Michael gave us another update:
So, there is more to the story. My followers over the weekend raised hell, shared my photos, created all sorts of banners showing support.... On Monday, Facebook sent me an apology email (yes, my second one in two years) and said my photo had been removed in error. The photo was my book cover. They seemingly lifted my ban because I can now post, but they never did reinstate my cop photo.
I strongly urge you to go to my Facebook page, where I have outlined everything chronologically. I think after 10 minutes or so, you’ll get a big picture idea of what’s happening. Also, the photo I posted yesterday is going a bit viral, 70,000 likes in less than 24 hours. My soldiers came to my defense, of all the models I’ve photographed, these were the three that offered to help me.