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When Censorship Articles Get Censored

April 3, 2022
April 3, 2022
Deon Black via Unsplash + Kegg

When BeautyMatter published a piece on social media censoring female-bodied health, we were hoping to spread awareness about an ongoing issue affecting consumers and brands alike. In an ironic twist of events, our posts, whether from our business or personal page, were removed from LinkedIn without any notification of them being removed nor any prior warning that our content was deemed problematic by the platform. We only realized they had been removed when Kristina Cahojova, CEO of kegg and one of the main voices in our article, posted about the removal of her articles on her LinkedIn account. 

Upon contacting the social media platform’s customer service, we received a reply from Executive Escalations apologizing and admitting it was a mistake and that our posts would be restored. Upon sending a follow-up asking about the subject of censorship across the platform, as well as questioning if the post would be allowed or banned going forward, we received no reply. Having never dealt with any prior censorship despite numerous posts on sexual wellness, we were flabbergasted at the unjustified removal of our content due to them violating adult content policies, according to the platform.

“Don't be shocked. This is how we have been living since forever,” Cahojova relayed to us on a follow-up call, adding that wellness and education campaigns she had tried to get off the ground on LinkedIn were pulled down as well. Upon posting about the issue of the article link being taken down on LinkedIn (presumably due to the use of the words “sex” or “porn,” wielded in order to emphasize why female-bodied health brands were being censored in the first place), a male commenter suggested that the censorship issues was due to the “Cucumber Problem”: the digital system, as an unbiased observer, removing any content which could be seen as controversial by a substantial part of the online audience. Therefore, pushing to have women’s health not be censored was creating an unfair bias as well, he implied. And yet, provocative men’s health ads don’t witness any censorship whatsoever. “Opinions like this are part of the problem,” comments BeautyMatter founder Kelly Kovack.

"The Menstrual Revolution" report states that 100% of the 60 women’s health brands surveyed by the Center for Intimacy Justice experienced ad rejection on Instagram and Facebook. Furthermore, “vagina” is one of the most flagged terms on Meta. “Digital platforms play the biggest role in information discrimination. It’s not just about advertising our products, we also need to be able to educate women on these issues that can help improve wellness, health, and society,” Rebekah Hall, CEO of South West Brands, stated at the launch event for the report, which outlines consumer and industry knowledge and funding gaps. FEWE, a cycle care company in the South West Brands portfolio, recently launched an open letter to Meta requesting a review of cyber censorship of women’s health on Facebook and Instagram, signed by over a dozen fellow femtech brands.

“Digital platforms play the biggest role in information discrimination. It’s not just about advertising our products, we also need to be able to educate women on these issues that can help improve wellness, health, and society."
By Rebekah Hall, CEO, South West Brands

Angelica Gianchandani, MA, practitioner in residence for the Brand Marketing and Executive MBA programs at Pompea College of Business at the University of New Haven with a speciality in business ethics, female leadership, and Facebook consumer behavior, argues the implications and solutions tap into wider societal points. “This censorship is because of the lack of diversity in the tech and advertising industry, the lack of women who are in leadership roles. That is contributing to the narrow range of portrayals, and when women are underrepresented, the companies have biases,” Gianchandani says. As of 2021, 91.7% of software developers were male. “Those algorithms, who are they controlled by? This comes down to the cultural norms, and acceptance for the male, but not the women’s, categories in intimate products. There has been a taboo on talking about female wellness. The conversation is finally being normalized because of this vision of rebranding by female-founded brands,” Gianchandani states. Unfortunately those that are shifting the taboo are not reaching the audiences they need to, with even automated systems having an unfair bias. 

Another reason for these biases boils down to green figures. Men’s health brands are often better funded, therefore they have more advertising budget disposable, which in turn makes them more desirable clients for the likes of Meta and Co. ‘It's a chicken or egg problem: they're way better funded because they are less censored. They can sell more because they can advertise and then they get more funding. It’s a never-ending problem,” Cahojova explains. A femtech founder told BeautyMatter that certain brands get placed on a whitelist, which allows them to advertise in ways that would get other brands banned. Because a majority of social media platforms place “zero priority” on women’s health, the founder notes,  brands for this market being censored is often overlooked.  “Men's health companies have no problems with advertisements saying ‘get hard, splash her’ in their own advertising. How is that possible?” Cahojova asks. With enough funds or publicity raised on the issue, it appears that there is more leniency regarding language and imagery in men’s advertising.

On February 9, Hillary Clinton replied to Senator Patty Murray’s tweet about the double standard of censorship for women’s sexual health ads. Clinton asked if there was any response from Meta. The tweet received over 6,466 likes, but no reply from Meta or its leadership team. “It really comes down to brands being accountable for reducing bias in their respective business. That is the overall issue that leadership needs to tackle—by defining measurable actions,” Gianchandani states. “When it comes to this censorship, it's not difficult to fix, it's a matter of somebody at these companies deciding that they're going to fix it. They need to have somebody who's a women's health policy advocate within their group to steer the company on the right path. Companies can't have diversity statements and then, on the backend, show up doing this kind of censoring.”

Google, whose Director of Global Shopping is female (Chrissy Seib), is less strict than other online platforms. “I think that [a woman being in that leadership position] is the main reason they have not been censoring women’s health, as far as I know,” Cahojova comments. “They only have restrictions on targeting because health is an intimate issue.” 

For Cahojova, despite multiple complaints to social media giants, it was only a few months of respite until her medical product was flagged as a sex toy yet again. “How the AIs are built is a good thing because it is flagging potentially harmful content. But the fact that men's health companies are able to go around it and women's health aren’t, that is the problem,” Cahojova adds. Even Pinterest is taking down images that address women’s sexual health. The founder no longer receives replies to her complaints and queries to contacts across different social media platforms as of late, proving said point. In the case of TikTok, Cahojova, whose posts had been flagged as adult content, reached out to a female senior brand manager at TikTok, who was able to escalate her censorship case. But even TikTok’s own employees are having difficulty with internal appeals. Cahojova has had to either relaunch campaigns, or send appeals, which can take upwards of 30 weeks. Aside from the strain on kegg’s time and work resources, it also means that campaigns are not able to reach the viral moments they have the potential to achieve because they are almost immediately flagged or removed.

Cahojova recently launched a founder’s petition to stop censorship on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. To date, the petition has garnered over 80 signatures from femtech brands, including Dame, Cora, and Embr. Examples of censored content include a text-only post about the length of time it takes to receive an endometriosis diagnosis (7-10 years) by intimate wearable brand Ohnut, an educational YouTube video entitled “Conception 101: Ovulation and Your Cervix” by at-home artificial insemination company Mosie Baby, and an advertisement by OB-GYN medical device company Milli with a testimonial by a fully clothed woman stating “Milli is very appealing for ease of use. Easy to control. I was able to achieve my goals easily.” These are hardly pearl-clutching scenarios.

Bringing this subject to light is proving difficult and highly consequential for female entrepreneurs. “No one wants to talk about censorship because all women's health companies are underfunded, and once you start complaining, investors deem you very difficult,” Cahojova states. Kegg has since become profitable, offering its founder more freedom, but for those struggling to compete with funding securement, speaking out is a risky move financially. “The issue around VC funding is a real one because it's hard to compete without money right now,” Kovack remarks. “Brand founders not being able to speak openly about censorship amplifies the gravity of the issue.”

It’s a disservice to the incredible work female founders are doing to reduce shame, stigma, and a lack of education around female bodies. “This whole category has been rebranded to be more tasteful and approachable about the choice of wording, aesthetic design, and packaging for the modern woman, to organically blend into the mainstream. It's interesting that these products have reached physical retail, but they're being censored online. These online platforms are missing out on the revenue growth of the industry when they censor it,” Gianchandani comments. She sees physical retail being a huge benefit to increasing awareness around these brands, given the face-to-face interaction and engagement with the product, and key for any enterprise pushing for diversity in their offerings. Gianchandani is also confident that with the category going mainstream at the likes of Sephora and Nordstrom, there is hope on the horizon. But in-store presence comes with minimum order quantities, not to mention proof of an audience—an audience which is built online, feeding back into the vicious cycle perpetuated by censorship. 

When the term for a female body part becomes a controversy on the platforms which profit so greatly off of their sexualization, and an unfair economic advantage is offered to male-focused brands of the same genre, change isn’t an aspiration, it’s a requirement. “We need to raise awareness on how damaging the impacts of gender stereotypes and the double standards are. It's damaging for the longevity of companies, but it's also even more detrimental to the health and wellness of men and women,” Gianchandani proclaims. “When we are focusing on gender equality, it benefits everyone.”

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