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Flagged Inappropriate: Social Media Censorship on Women’s Health

NEWS

Written by Melissa Irving (she/her) | @the_vintage_journalist | Contributing Writer


Please note: although this article refers to women’s health and sexual wellbeing content, it is a shorthand expression that encompasses transgender or gender non-conforming people including those who are assigned female at birth, as they can also be affected by this issue. 


Social media platforms have created opportunities for broadcasting information to large and diverse groups of people. This is particularly powerful for breaking down barriers and generating discussions about topics with pervasive amounts of shame and taboo attached to them, such as women’s health. Yet, these necessary discussions are being “stifled” by the censorship of women’s health and sexual wellbeing content on social media. Last year, period product company BodyForm launched Vaginas Uncensored, an initiative to highlight forty words or visual depictions of women’s health that are censored frequently on social media. Their list includes terms such as vulva, miscarriage, UTI, menopause, adenomyosis, breastfeeding, vaginismus, orgasm, and PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder). 


Over the past six weeks, UK women’s health advocates Clio Wood and Anna O’Sullivan have been running the CensHERship campaign to better understand the scale of the problem. 


“The gender health gap is a really huge problem and this censorship is a really big part of us not being able to reduce that gap,” says Wood.


Their survey of more than 50 organisations has discovered that nine in ten of the respondents who publish women’s health content have experienced some form of censorship in the past twelve months. Forty percent have experienced ten or more separate incidents in that same period. 


Both individuals and organisations have had content flagged as inappropriate, removed from the platform, had monetised ads suspended, been shadowbanned or had their accounts deleted altogether. 


Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa (formerly known as Family Planning) has confirmed that the problem is being experienced here in New Zealand. Communication coordinator Hilary Cook says that the suppression or removal of content flagged as “objectionable” creates a “frustrating” amount of work for the team. They often resort to using ambiguous language (such as Seggs instead of sex or Condorn instead of condom) as a form of “self-censorship” to enable their messages to reach their audience. 


“We need to be able to say what we mean, and we can’t do that when harmful, puritanical ideas about anatomy, sex, gender, and sexuality govern what’s allowed to be said on social media,” says Cook.


The organisation is frustrated that they have to avoid algorithm censorship by using euphemisms in their content, a move which contradicts their ethos about being more direct about sexual and reproductive health issues.


Content censorship is an issue that Yessenia Sandoval, founder of the charity Endo Warriors Aotearoa, is also acutely aware of. She has faced “countless” instances of harassment on social media due to the advocacy work that she does. Meanwhile, the charity’s Instagram posts which feature discussions or visual depictions related to menstruation, endometriosis, pelvic pain and other aspects of women’s health are regularly targeted through censorship.


“By suppressing content that portrays the reality of living with these conditions, social media platforms contribute to a culture of silence and invisibility, further marginalising those who suffer from them,” says Sandoval. 


The CensHERship team is particularly concerned about the impact that this censorship is having on women’s health and people’s ability to access vital information which could lead to them seeking medical care. Throughout their campaign work, Wood and O’Sullivan have learnt of organisations who have faced content moderation for breast cancer screening or gynaecological cancer awareness. 


“These are pieces of information that could be life-saving for people and it’s really being hindered,” says Wood.


This is especially critical for New Zealand because according to Talk Peach, one New Zealander dies every day from gynaecological cancer and survival rates have remained largely unchanged compared to that of other cancers. 


Meanwhile, Sandoval fears that the suppression of information about less understood conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, vaginismus and pelvic pain on social media platforms contributes to diagnostic delays. She said that not only does this reinforce shame and stigma about what people are experiencing, the lack of accessible information about symptoms and potential causes could mean someone is less likely to seek healthcare or treatment.


Pelvic physiotherapist Liz Childs says that social media plays a big role in sharing knowledge and promoting discussions. But she emphasised the significance of women’s health and sexual wellbeing content remaining available to people without interference from social media censorship.


“It’s really important that people are made aware of what the problems are. These sorts of issues are underreported and under-diagnosed. 


“People miss out on getting treatment and they end up just putting up with pelvic floor dysfunction when they don’t need to. They don’t know that help is available and often their health professionals haven’t known (what care or treatment to offer),” says Childs.


Ideally, the CensHERship team would like to collaborate with the various social media companies. They want to gain a better understanding of what is allowed on the platform, the data that is used to train the content moderation algorithms and their review processes. Wood and O’Sullivan have an ambitious plan for the following year: as they network, develop strategies and toolkits, host a CensHERship summit, and continue to advocate for the social media giants to come on board. 


“We really need to galvanise the community to learn from each other, share resources, cultivate further interest in the issue, and create more extensive coverage. Ultimately, we want to bring everyone’s voices together so that they are more impactful and can create some change,” says Wood. 


Meta was approached for comment in relation to this story, but they did not respond in time for publication.  


Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa says that instead of censoring women’s health content, they would like to see more effort put into removing hate speech from social media platforms. [Photo: Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa].


Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa says that censorship and suppression of their content impacts their reach for providing sexual and reproductive health information to young people. [Photo: Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa]. 


Yessenia Sandoval from Endo Warriors Aotearoa says that social media censorship of women’s health impedes efforts to raise awareness of less known conditions like endometriosis, which affect 1 in 10 people. [Photo: Melissa Irving]. 


This Is Endo have had images of life with endometriosis censored and their new hashtag #StopCensoringEndo has been banned on Meta social platforms.  [Photo: Melissa Irving]. 


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