Meta targets LGBTQ communities, threatens livelihood with arbitrary censorship
Gay-owned business attacked, suspended from platform; Meta refuses to address discrimination, ramps up scrutiny after criticism
BY JEREMY BRADLEY for Happy Bulge
UPDATED: July 3 with second suspension details
As an entrepreneur, I can appreciate the struggles of small-business owners -- at the very least people who want to be their own boss and control their career.
Now, more than ever, people rely heavily on social media to build an audience, gain a loyal following, and make money from their content.
When I started in publishing and broadcasting 20 years ago, social media wasn't a "thing." I had to slug it out the hard way to get noticed. There wasn't an easy way to get my weekly local newspaper column seen by the masses. (It’s still published 20 years later, by the way.) I couldn't just click a few buttons and have my words read by tens of thousands of people within minutes. Ditto when I started hosting a radio show on a small station in Vancouver. I couldn't tweet a link or post a live stream on my profile page. Those didn't exist.
Now, after appearing in and on a variety of platforms, I've maintained a social media following -- as much as I have little to no interest in devoting hours to engage in yet another avenue. (That's what staff is for!) I still, however, have access to 300,000 radio listeners and about 100,000 newspaper readers when I need an audience.
I appreciate the hustle content creators have in utilizing social media channels to build their brand (and sometimes "brand" in quotation marks because the word is often misused.) I, for one, have never been on Snapchat and don't really know what TikTok is. That's how far removed I am from social media trends. Again, kudos to those who've figured out how to monetize their offerings.
Three years ago, I discovered that LGBTQ creators are unfairly targeted on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Happy Bulge Swim Co., a men's swimwear and underwear store, had been the subject of repeated FB and IG scrutiny over product photos it posted. Over the course of several months, Happy Bulge was accused of posting content that contained "nudity or sexual activity" -- and in one instance, swimwear product photos that "exploit COVID." Really. Happy Bulge has the receipts and posted them.
You'll notice a familiar name in that post because I presented the story to Facebook (pre Meta days) and pressed the media relations team for comment about the censorship. I didn't get very far, instead always being told the situation was being reviewed. Turning up the heat with the threat of a national media campaign -- and when Happy Bulge's Facebook page was shutdown -- Instagram's media rep commented, admitting the platform was incorrect in its flagging and apologized for any harm that was caused. The Happy Bulge Facebook page was reinstated within 30 minutes. The problem, however, didn’t end there.
Fast forward to October 2022 and Instagram again cranked up the censorship with a series of accusations that Happy Bulge was posting content that goes against its so-called Community Guidelines.
This time, some posts were reinstated after a review was requested, while many photos remained offline because of said "nudity or sexual activity." You can see the screenshots scattered throughout this post. In the case of "nudity" one would assume this means an exposed penis or buttocks, however, never once has that appeared in any of the flagged content. That fall, there were nearly 30 "violations" in a few weeks. A full timeline of only October 2022 is documented at the end of this post.
In one instance, a product photo of underwear was removed and a review was requested. Instagram sent a notification that the post indeed violated its policies, however less than 10 minutes later the image was reinstated. The next day, the same post -- the one Instagram reposted -- was taken down and another violation was cited, this time revoking Happy Bulge's "branded tools" and issuing a threat that the account could soon be removed.
In another instance, a blurred product photo (it's a “surprise” product that people won't see until it arrives in the mail) was dubbed a "commerce policy violation" and "may not position products or services in a sexually suggestive manner." The image is literally a blur.
In another instance, a photo was flagged in the Happy Bulge Feed as being “nudity or sexual activity,” yet a Story of the same photo remained unchallenged for the duration of its 24-hour shelf life on the profile. Several days later, on Facebook, the same photo was suggested as a “boosted” post but then immediately flagged three times as “nudity or sexual activity.” Three simultaneous reviews were requested, however only two decisions were reversed of the one post. The Happy Bulge Facebook page is blocked from posting for 24 hours after Facebook suggested boosting said content. (Suggesting to draw attention to a post, then cracking down on it and charging it as a platform crime? That sounds like a setup to me.)
In another instance, Happy Bulge posted a screenshot of a violation notification of one of its posts. That, too, was flagged as "nudity or sexual activity." You read that correctly: Instagram flagged its own content as containing smut. (Gasp! Is Instagram gay?!)
In another instance, posts from Sept. 9 and Sept. 17 were flagged simultaneously on Oct. 20 for violating “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” In one photo, a Happy Bulge model is cheekily sticking out his tongue. That’s all. He’s sticking out his tongue. The other photo is a user-submitted image of a customer taking a mirror selfie in his underwear. Reviews were requested for both, however, minutes later the decisions remained unchanged. The next day, 10 more posts – one from the previous December – were flagged with product tag “violations” (including “Adult Products policy” on a swimsuit photo and “Commerce Policies policy”).
In most cases, these product images are no different than what you'd see on the Macy's website or on posters in the windows of a men's clothing store. I recall, as a gay child, seeing the same type of photos in the Sears catalog over 30 years ago. The problem is, Happy Bulge targets the gay community and, it appears, Meta targets the gay community, too -- though in a hateful way.
Twice has Happy Bulge filed cases with the Facebook Oversight Board, a group supposedly "ensuring respect for free expression, through independent judgment.” On Oct. 19, 2022, however, Happy Bulge received two notifications that the “Oversight Board did not select your case.”
Each time Happy Bulge is dinged and shares the news, many of its 7,300 Instagram and 5,100 Facebook followers (the ones who are allowed to see the posts through the clawback of content distribution) comment and send messages about how they're sick of being targeted, share their own stories, and voice their support for the small gay-owned business. Many of the users have created backup accounts so people have time to follow them should their main profiles be removed from the platforms.
Minor “offenses” were logged through the following spring (also seen in screenshots throughout this post) but while no official notices were given to Happy Bulge, a decline in both post reach and engagement were observed.
Fast forward to June 2023 – Pride Month, ironically – and Happy Bulge was briefly suspended from Instagram, though it seemed verification of an email address and phone number was enough to right the ship. Once back online, in the “account status” tab of the Instagram app, it was noticed that, “Your account can’t be shown to non-followers” – likely the reason reach and engagement are down. The notice continues, “Your account and content won’t appear in places like Explore, Search, Suggested Users, Reels and Feed Recommendations.” When reviewing the content Instagram flagged, the warning cites four posts: two show the backside of a swim brief (two images) and the backside of an underwear bikini brief (one image), and of a model sitting on a bed with a swimsuit across himself (one photo). All are tagged as, “Your post may go against our guidelines on sexual activity or nudity.” (“May” is the tricky word there – though, grammatically it should be “might.”)
Panic struck again in the early hours of July 3 when the Happy Bulge page was suspended, this time citing "porn" as the violation. The page remained offline for almost 24 hours before an automated email arrived saying Instagram "got it wrong" and the page was not in violation of "community guidelines." In fact, now, the four previously mentioned offenses (those backside product shots) were no long listed in the "status" tab of the Happy Bulge account.
Nevertheless, every day, Happy Bulge is fearful of posting its content because the next image could see the store wiped out, and along with it, 95 percent of its audience. The targeting has caused some Happy Bulge team members to lose sleep and neurotically check the Instagram and Facebook accounts in the middle of the night to ensure the pages are still online. During a time when the small business is seeing a rebound after the detrimental pandemic – and the festivities of Pride Month – this should be a time of celebration for Happy Bulge and its team and their followers. Instead, the focus is on maintaining a presence during Meta’s over-policing through artificial intelligence and prudish human reviewers. Happy Bulge is considering its legal options should the business suffer further from Meta’s discrimination.
Since October 2022, Meta's corporate communications team hasn't responded to 70 of my emails for a media comment for our syndicated radio programming, newspaper content and online platforms for this story, though national LGBTQ organizations, along with content creators and “influencers” have.
GLAAD – the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – told me in part, "This is an issue that has been well-documented over many years with innumerable similar cases … where LGBTQ users' content tends to be over-policed or incorrectly flagged and removed due to content moderation systems that disproportionately identify LGBTQ material for takedowns. Social media platforms must do better at training their AI systems and human content moderators in this realm and must make vast improvements in their policies to address these kinds of problems and to not discriminate against their LGBTQ users.”
ACLU -- American Civil Liberties Union – pointed to several examples, citing a 2020 case involving such content. Facebook rejected an ad of a same-sex couple, but took no issue with a similar ad of a heterosexual couple. It happened for the couple’s music project while promoting a new album. The imagery, as they describe, showed “a beautiful artistic shot of two people in love” (it’s two people with their foreheads touching), however Facebook fired back saying it contained “adult sexually explicit content.” The couple tested Facebook’s policies by switching out the imagery with a heterosexual couple. The content was approved. The ACLU challenged Facebook and later reported the social media giant “incorrectly” blocked the original content, however offered no explanation with its apology.
Last Pride Month, I hosted a series of podcasts called Pride Biz Showcase, where I spoke with small-business owners who highlighted their struggles and successes as entrepreneurs. Naturally, the respective conversations led to marketing and audience engagement – and you guessed it – how social media played/plays a part. Each time – each and every time – they reported hurdles and, as they described it, discrimination, namely on Facebook and Instagram.
So, for Pride Month 2023, I contacted David Ginsberg, who has been installed as Meta’s VP and global head of communications and public affairs, according to reports, in response to the company’s PR crisis in recent years. (Per Axios, “Facebook parent Meta is reorganizing its communications and public affairs team to combat an onslaught of negative press and try to repair its reputation.”) I should note that Ginsberg wasn’t in the role during the first Happy Bulge battle but has since been leading the Meta team during the latest round of attacks while his PR team has ignored those 70 emails since October.
For Pride Month, and to seek clarity about safety and get reassurance that LGBTQ businesses, content creators – and the community in general – are welcome and encouraged to share on Meta platforms, I presented Ginsberg with a draft of this story and dozens of screenshots from Happy Bulge highlighting the targeted censorship. I also requested a detailed list of “nudity and/or sexual activity” that Happy Bulge has ever posted, and the status of the Happy Bulge accounts because, as the screenshots show, it appears the store is always one post away from being shutdown on the platforms.
In doing so, I’m giving Ginsberg the opportunity to confirm or deny Happy Bulge’s claims that it has never posted nudity and/or sexual activity on the platforms. Responsible journalism (the kind you can’t get sued for) affords the other side the opportunity to respond to such damning accusations about homophobia and bigotry. Arguably, you could say that 70 unanswered attempts means Meta can’t defend the targeted censorship and/or chooses to ignore the accusation. I’m not ready to draw a conclusion until I get an explanation or at the very least a “no comment.” (Though, any PR expert worth their salt knows they should respond when faced with a multi-platform national campaign calling out their company for homophobia and bigotry.)
Does Ginsberg stand by the reviews and final decisions made about specific censorship of Happy Bulge posts outlined in this article? Is Happy Bulge on its last legs? Is the content so offensive and so dangerous that Happy Bulge should be wiped off Facebook and Instagram altogether?
Moreover, what should a business such as Happy Bulge – a company that, let’s be honest, must show close-ups of products featuring male bulges on different body types to adequately market products – do to remain a figurative law-abiding citizen on Meta platforms? What advice does Meta have for LGBTQ businesses to succeed on the platforms?
Good questions, right? What are the answers?
Turns out, Meta’s bigotry comes from the top with Ginsberg refusing to respond to multiple emails seeking comment. Our initial email to him was forwarded to Simone Levien, Meta business communications. Levien replied asking how she could be of assistance, however didn’t respond to multiple requests for answers in this article. She didn’t answer multiple follow-up phone calls either.
Now, more than ever, it's critically important to support LGBTQ businesses, individuals, creators -- whoever. That's through liking their pages, subscribing to their content, buying their products and utilizing their services. While many of them don't have the finances or resources or simply the strength to fight the fight -- I do. And I will.
Timeline of Facebook and Instagram Targeting – OCTOBER 2022
Oct. 2- Strapping Surprise underwear product photo flagged as "commerce policy violations" saying "listings may not position products or services in a sexually suggestive manner." (The product image is a blurred photo that doesn't show anything because customers are surprised by the item when it arrives in the mail.)
Oct. 3- Fabulous Flamingo swimsuit post "removed for adult sexual solicitation." A review is requested however the decision goes unchanged. (A split-screen image showing the violation announcement and the original image is later posted and isn’t flagged for violating “guidelines.”)
Oct. 7- Instagram identifies "suggested ad" boost of Fabulous Flamingo split-screen photo that calls out the platform for homophobia. It contains the product image that was "removed for adult sexual solicitation.”
Oct. 8- Royal Blue Rendezvous underwear post "removed for nudity or sexual activity." Happy Bulge account is flagged and will possibly "lose access...in the future." A review was requested, however, the post remained flagged. Minutes later, it reappeared in the feed without mention about it being reinstated.
Oct. 8- Happy Bulge is "no longer eligible to use Instagram's branded content tools."
Oct. 9- Royal Blue Rendezvous underwear post that was removed on Oct. 8 but reinstated by Instagram moments later, flagged again, again citing "nudity or sexual activity."
Oct. 16- Pretty in Pink Pastels swimsuit product photo "removed for nudity or sexual activity." A review is requested, however the post is not reinstated as Instagram "confirmed that it goes against Community Guidelines." An IG Story of the same photo remained online, unflagged for the 24-hour duration of the Story.
Oct. 16- A screenshot of the Instagram "violation" notification of Pretty in Pink Pastels is posted and is flagged as "nudity or sexual activity."
Oct. 16- Happy Bulge receives another notification that the account is "no longer eligible to use Instagram's branded content tools."
Oct. 17- Star Power underwear product photo posted on Oct. 15 is "removed for nudity or sexual activity." A review is requested and Instagram "posted it because it doesn't go against any of our Community Guidelines."
Oct. 19- Happy Bulge receives two notifications that the “Oversight Board did not select your case.”
Oct. 20- Happy Bulge prompted to “boost” previous Pretty in Pink Pastels swimsuit photo. The one post is flagged three times simultaneously as “nudity or sexual activity.” A review is requested three times, however only two are reversed. The Happy Bulge Facebook page is blocked from posting for 24 hours after Facebook suggested boosting the post.
Oct. 20- Colored Curves swimsuit product photo posted on Sept. 17 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 20- Ravagable Red jockstrap product photo posted on Sept. 9 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 21- Ready to Rumble wrestling singlet product photo posted on Oct. 2 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested and the decision is reversed.
Oct. 21- Colored Curves swimsuit product photo posted on July 13 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 21- String Around the Rosy swimsuit product photo posted on Sept. 26 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested and the decision is reversed.
Oct. 21- A second String Around the Rosy swimsuit product photo posted on Sept. 26 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested and the decision is reversed.
Oct. 21- Colored Curves swimsuit product photo posted on Sept. 20 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Adult Products policy.” A review is requested and the decision is reversed.
Oct. 21- Happy Bulge Facebook page is warned, “Don’t lose your page! Your Page is at risk due to continued Community Standards violations.”
Oct. 21- Hours after Ready to Rumble wrestling singlet product photo was flagged but had its “product tags” reinstated after a review, the post again had its “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” Another review is requested and the decision is reversed for a second time the same day.
Oct. 21- String Around the Rosy product photo posted on Sept. 16 has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy” with a man standing in his swimsuit. A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 21- Pretty in Pink Pastels swimsuit photo with the product on the model’s lap posted on May 28 has “product tags removed” citing “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 21- Cartoon Stars & Stripes photo of a customer standing in the mirror wearing his swimsuit posted on May 27 has “product tags removed” citing “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 21- Hot Lifeguard swimsuit product photo of a model standing in the shower posted on Dec. 21 is flagged as “Commerce Policies policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.
Oct. 23- String Around the Rosy product photo showing a model with a strawberry in his mouth has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested and the decision is reversed.
Nov. 3- Ready to Rumble product photo of man standing in wrestling singlet has “product tags removed” citing violation of “Overly Sexualized Positioning policy.” A review is requested but the decision is unchanged.