Facebook banned us because men have a penis in their underwear
Alleges posts contain nudity and sexual activity, says swimwear pics 'exploit' COVID
Like many small businesses, Happy Bulge Swim Co. came to a standstill when the pandemic struck last year -- largely because nobody needed cheeky swimwear to go to the pools and beaches that were closed.
When we launched at Phoenix Pride in April 2019, the image we tried to create was cheeky, playful and fun. We succeeded instantly thanks to the company name, cute logo and adorable product line. OK, maybe it helped that we had guys randomly stripping down at our booth to try on products. Details, details.
Nevertheless, after five successful Pride events that year, we looked to triple our presence throughout North America in 2020. With a packed schedule laid out, we had Pride events booked several times per month, and, well, you know what happened last year.
As summer 2020 came to an end, we had boxes of inventory piling up because all of our Pride events were cancelled. We made the shift from selling in person to growing an e-commerce platform. That's when we began to rely heavily on Facebook and Instagram -- and they sure didn't make it easy for this small gay-owned business.
Like many companies utilizing social media, we developed a content strategy. It was pretty simple: post photos of our products every day. It wasn't anything revolutionary. It wasn't a difficult plan to implement.
Each time we visited a city for Pride in 2019, we hired local models for photoshoots in Happy Bulge products. We'd bring them in for a couple hours, put on some music, have a drink or two, and they'd run around the hotel suite in a few dozen different swimsuits. (Sweet gig, hey?)
The photography captured the fun, playfulness of the brand we were trying to create. The images looked amateur. That was the intent. They were shot on the fly in a hotel room with a phone. We knew people weren't going to follow us because of the remarkable photography -- they wanted to see guys stripped down in skimpy swimsuits. And that’s what we gave them.
We started posting that content and very quickly Facebook took notice. Almost every week our posts were targeted on Facebook and Instagram, with the images being removed. Oftentimes we had the ability to appeal the decision and other times we didn't. When we could appeal, Facebook often agreed there was nothing wrong with the content and reinstated the post. The times we couldn't appeal (usually because Facebook blamed COVID for them having fewer than usual people reviewing), Facebook continued to tally the offenses that could/would ultimately lead to our banishment from the platform.
Well, it took just over one year for us to get banned from Facebook. But, we can also claim victory in what was one helluva fight to get back online.
The trouble started when our product photography contained close-up images of men wearing swimsuits. As you can imagine, the best way to market such a product is to show it on a model. Since we committed to showing off the swimwear on different body types, we couldn't just use a plastic mannequin like you'd see in a store. There's nothing playful, cheeky and fun about that. We used models of all shapes and sizes. And apparently it's the sizes that the social media giant objected to.
You see, all of our models have one thing in common: they have a penis. Clutch your pearls, lady-fellas. Our men have manhood. For some reason, Facebook is scared of the dong. We're not talking fully happy dongs, we're talking just a chill member relaxing in some spandex – no different than you’d see on a swimmer or diver at the Olympics, or even on the goddamn Macy’s website. THAT crossed the line. THAT was forbidden. THAT was unforgivable. THAT was... "sensitive" content?
Each time a post was removed, we noticed in the days following the distribution of our content was limited. When we'd normally get dozens, if not hundreds, of "likes" on a post within hours, we were suddenly barely getting double digits on Instagram. Facebook was even worse. With over 1,700 followers, many posts "reached" fewer than 10 users, according to the Facebook statistics.
The pattern repeated: We posted, within minutes they removed, we'd appeal (when possible) and the image would be re-posted, but on the back end the account was flagged with lesser distribution for the next few days. After this continued for several weeks, a noticeable alert was displayed on the Facebook dashboard saying the page was "at risk of being unpublished" because of multiple offenses.
Attempting to resolve the issue with Facebook "support" via Messenger, it only led to more frustration because the agent on the other end had no access (so they said) to see the blocks and restrictions, and they could only direct us to reference pages online. Each time, there was no resolution, only a link to submit a request for a page review. And, you guessed it, that also did little to fix the issue.
Eventually, Happy Bulge's advertising account was suspended. In the last part of 2020, we spent over $6,000 on Facebook ads. For a small business struggling through a pandemic, that’s a lot of money. It was beneficial and led to impressive sales to close out the year, but that, too, wasn't without its drama.
Our ads contained the same images that were posted on the Happy Bulge pages. Some photos had been used upwards of two dozen times before. So, why at the end of the year were the images suddenly against Facebook advertising standards? Why were they resulting in flags and threats of banishment? Worst of all, why was a pic of a swimsuit model accused of exploiting COVID medical devices? Really!
Throughout the months of deploying Facebook ads, our copy and imagery was frequently targeted and labelled as "nudity" or "sexual activity" and described as "sensitive" content that was harmful to the "community." The shots ranged from generic product imagery (a man's lower body dressed in swimwear/underwear) to a model smiling on a bed wearing swimwear.
But what was/is the issue? Was it that we were posting inappropriate content that should've been shielded from impressionable eyes? Was there some penis-hating employee creeping pages and randomly censoring Facebook and Instagram? Was technology working against the male body and targeting skin pics without any consideration about what was actually shown?
Seeking answers, we enlisted syndicated radio host and newspaper columnist, Jeremy Bradley, to reach out to the corporate communications team at Facebook to find out what was happening. Turns out, that was just as wheel-spinning as randomly contacting the support chat. The difference in dealing with a media relations team, however, is that it's their job to respond to reporters asking questions. And if they don't, a good reporter will continue hounding them until there's a response. So, we sent in a relentless gay broadcaster to get some answers -- and he wouldn't back down.
The chase started in July 2021. Bradley contacted Instagram media relations seeking comment about several of the accusations the company levelled against Happy Bulge and its social media pages. Bradley had been provided over two dozen screenshots highlighting the times our page posts and ads had been denied, removed and/or reinstated. (You can see them throughout this post.)
Within minutes of requesting attention from the corporate team, Instagram rep, Stephanie Chan, replied to Bradley and agreed to check out the complaint on behalf of Happy Bulge. Bradley forwarded the HB-supplied shots and left it with Chan for further investigation.
A week had passed with no response, so Bradley pushed for comment as Happy Bulge continued to receive notices of pending page removal. Bradley challenged Chan, saying, "I'm intrigued to know what "nudity or sexual activity" is being shown here. We're seeking comment specifically about the posts in question and why this store gets shopping privileges revoked, then reviewed and allowed, then revoked again."
Still hearing nothing, Bradley replied, "We'll go with: "Instagram did not respond to a request for comment about the business page in question, nor, when asked, did it provide reassurance that the LGBTQ community should feel safe on its platform and is not being targeted by arbitrary censorship.""
That prompted a quick reply from Chan, who insisted the statement be posted from "a Facebook Company Spokesperson.”
"We have reinstated these images and apologize for any unintentional hurt caused,” the statement said. “We are investigating why these images were removed in the first place. We restored the images from the screenshots you shared and also looked into and restored additional images from @happybulge that were incorrectly rejected."
Chan's statement included this disclaimer: "With billions of people using Instagram every day, our AI doesn't always get everything right but we are investigating why these images were removed."
Because so many of Bradley's journalistic questions went unanswered (for instance: "Does the company work one-on-one if people request assistance or is it all very generic and automated? Does an employee go in and make these decisions or is it automated? Is your AI setting the blocks or is a human? What can a store like Happy Bulge do to maintain good standing and succeed as a small business on your platform?"), he continued his pursuit.
Bradley also requested a list and subsequent screenshots of specific body parts and sex acts that were displayed in Happy Bulge posts to better understand what constitutes nudity and sexual activity on the platforms. Nothing was ever supplied.
Another week later and no response, Bradley began discussing the story on syndicated radio. Listeners were quick to point to examples where Instagram accounts -- including one linked to a business -- that had publicly posted threats to police and feminists... but wasn't shutdown. Armed with this information, including news stories and screenshots, on July 29, Bradley pushed further to get answers about why harmless Happy Bulge posts were deemed a violation of community standards, yet threats to public safety went unpunished.
By Aug. 10, there was still no response from Chan or the Facebook media email address that was copied on messages. So, Bradley kicked it up a notch saying this statement would be used: "Multiple requests for comment about safety on the Instagram platform -- including inquiries about business pages allegedly threatening feminists and police -- went unanswered by media rep, Stephanie Chan."
And just like that, Chan responded saying the alleged threatening page would be investigated. It was on Aug. 12 that Chan confirmed the business page in question "violated our policies" and "has now been disabled."
Still, with unanswered questions about why pages are targeted, who or what makes the decision, and if there’s a secondary human review for accuracy, Bradley pushed Chan for details. There was no response. Bradley's emails continued on Aug. 18, Sept. 6 and Sept. 10. Nothing.
It was Sept. 14 that the Happy Bulge page was shutdown on Facebook. In recent months, however, the page was getting less and less traffic – presumably because of restrictions placed on our account. We had a significant following but Facebook had indicated the page wasn’t being shown to people so was any damage really done? Nevertheless, we sought answers about this drastic action.
Bradley was alerted that the Happy Bulge page had been shutdown because of multiple offenses related to Facebook's community standards. That pushed Bradley to demand answers and share the story with a larger audience.
To Chan, and copied to Facebook's media email address, Bradley wrote, "You will be hearing from me every day until there is a corporate response from Facebook re: discrimination toward this small business, in addition to the previously unanswered questions below. Who will provide comment and when? As mentioned, we're bouncing this over to gay orgs for review and comment. It will be publicly noted with dates and names that FB/IG is consistently MIA when asked to clarify and elaborate. This will air in radio syndication on Friday with a full web post on Monday."
With the screws tightening, Chan had no choice but to reply, saying the Happy Bulge ban would be investigated.
Two days later, with the page still offline and no response from Chan, Bradley contacted national LGBTQ organizations, including GLAAD, HRC and PFLAG, seeking comment about the Happy Bulge removal. They were provided screenshots of the so-called offending posts, and forwarded the previous Facebook/Instagram media relations exchanges. It didn't take long for them to provide lengthy statements about their disapproval of how social media platforms operate, and subsequently “over-police” LGBTQ content.
Meantime, we posted on Instagram about the Facebook ban and within minutes received dozens of supportive comments and messages from followers (called "Happy Bulge friends") condemning Facebook's actions and, in most cases, deeming them homophobic, if not entirely sexist.
Crafting a fiery newspaper commentary, Bradley sent excerpts to Chan -- highlighting a section that indicated Facebook (and Chan) had not responded to multiple requests for comment -- and that the story would hit gay blogs and magazines a few days after running on national radio and in newspapers.
And, gosh darnit, if the Happy Bulge Facebook page wasn't back online 30 minutes later.
Shortly thereafter, Chan followed-up with a statement and some background information -- again, attributed to "a Facebook Company Spokesperson."
"We looked into the Facebook account and the page was mistakenly taken down. We have restored the account and apologize again for any unintentional hurt caused. Our enforcement is never perfect and machines and humans make mistakes."
Additionally, Facebook admitted that some Happy Bulge products were wrongfully banned and noted "we have now overturned these."
After a brief two-day shutdown (and standoff), the Happy Bulge Facebook page was back online and traffic gradually returned. The dashboard noted that we couldn't invite friends to like the page because of repeated offenses (this time only "spam" ones were listed, though it never shows what they are).
When reached after the Facebook battle, Bradley said, “Facebook might think they rule the world because so many people rely on the service, but when it comes to the power of the media, Facebook doesn’t stand a chance. Look how badly they’re dragged in the news – as recently as this week with internal documents where they acknowledge Instagram is contributing to one in three teenage girls having body issues. Happy Bulge is celebrating all (men’s) body types and it gets shut down? It’s so backward.”
It's a win, of sorts. We stood up to Facebook and demanded fairness on the platform. True, we're fully aware that as a private company, Facebook has no obligation to give us -- or anyone -- a spot to broadcast anything. The least Facebook can do, especially knowing how much power it has, is to be transparent and open about what happens on its respective platforms.
Will our fight do anything to change the way Facebook operates? Probably not. After all, if those national LGBTQ organizations can't make any headway, a little swimwear company certainly won't have much clout.
For now, we're taking a victory lap. There's a sense of joy knowing that we stood up to the giant and fairness prevailed.
Thank you to everyone who supported us during the Facebook fight and who's been a loyal Happy Bulge product wearer since 2019. Supporting small business, especially LGBTQ, is incredibly important right now.
Even if you don't shop with us, please share this post to encourage others to stand up for what's right. There is strength in numbers and maybe, just maybe, together we can make a difference.
Screenshots of the alleged offenses on Facebook and Instagram: