In the latest misadventure of Facebook censorship, the company has judged that the Venus of Willendorf is too offensive for its social cesspool. The Venus of Willendorf, a statue of a naked woman carved in stone, is a world-famous work of ancient art. The 4.4-inch figurine has giant hips and breasts that represented fertility during the Upper Paleolithic. Created sometime between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, her features are so exaggerated that most modern people have a hard time recognizing it as a female sculpture at first sight. It’s one of the greatest prehistoric works ever found.
Yet a Facebook user claims that she included a photo of the Venus in a post, and it was promptly removed. The statue seemingly didn’t pass the company’s pornography test–a decision that goes against its own rules, since in 2015 Facebook established that artworks featuring nudes would always be allowed. The response from Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, where the statue is located, was categorical: “We do not want to accept this and think that the Venus must remain naked!”
Today, Facebook apologized for the move, saying that the social network doesn’t allow “depictions of nudity or even suggested nudity,” but it makes “an exception for statues, which is why the post should have been approved.” The wrongful censorship appears to be a failure of the company’s censorship system–which combines artificial intelligence, user-based flagging, and human censors who review flagged content before removing it.
Unfortunately, this is only the latest act of wrongful censorship by Facebook. Some other examples: this 19th-century oil painting of a naked woman by Gustave Courbet, a classic titled L’Origine Du Monde. A French professor had his account suspended after posting the painting in February 2011. Facebook argued in a French court that the post wasn’t the reason for the suspension, but the judges disagreed and the trial is currently underway. Another example is Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream, a 1964 painting that depicts a woman licking an ice cream shape that suggests male genitals. Facebook censored that picture from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Facebook for the same reasons as Courbet’s painting and the Venus.
This is what happens when people trust the walled gardens built by corporations like Facebook or Apple (another company with dumb censorship rules) with their virtual selves. In the end, no matter what their declared intentions, users are completely at the mercy of these companies. I’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this story as soon as they get back from painting black bars over bison genitals on the walls of Lascaux Cave.