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05.16.13

Bea Arthur’s Boobs Got Us Booted From Facebook

It was an innocent story about the art market, that happened to include a nude image of everyone’s favorite Golden Girl. Facebook disagreed. Brian Ries on an unjust ban.

In the end, I was done in by Bea Arthur’s boobs.

As the social media editor for The Daily Beast, I have posted countless potentially offensive stories on our Facebook page, from the sexual proclivities of porn stars to purported cannibalism in Syria. But not until we linked to a piece about the Golden Girl’s breasts did Facebook shut us down.

For a crime that wasn’t a crime. For a so-called offensive image that was an actual piece of art valued at roughly $2 million.

Way to go, Facebook people.

The error message was unequivocal: our “account(s) could be permanently disabled if you continue to post things that violate our terms.”

Out of nowhere, I—along with 22 of my colleagues—were given a 24-hour ban, which affected not just our ability to post to the company’s Facebook page, but to our personal pages, too.

Our trip to the e-gulag started when we posted a link that contained a thumbnail of a controversial 1991 painting by John Currin called “Bea Arthur Naked.” It took readers to a Daily Beast story about the artwork, which was being auctioned at Christie’s on Wednesday and was expected to bring in between $1.8 and $2.5 million. See? The breasts weren’t even real.

But somewhere, somehow, a reader, an employee, or a robot working for Facebook thought he (or she) was looking at a pair of the real, Golden deal. And so we were flagged, our account sent into the bowels of a social reportage machine (laid out in this infographic supplied to us by Facebook) that takes the offending post from a review before a “Safety Team” to an evaluation of the site’s community standards to a warning and, ultimately, a temporary suspension.

And yet our post wasn’t in violation of Facebook’s terms, since, as I said, they weren’t real breasts, but bona fide art.

I called to settle the matter. When I finally got a Facebook spokeswoman on the phone Wednesday afternoon, she conceded we had been unfairly convicted. “Our policy prohibits photos of actual nude people, not paintings or sculptures,” she told me. “Unfortunately, this image was erroneously removed under the same clause we use to prevent more graphic images from propagating on the site.”

Yet we had already paid for Facebook’s mistake. The spokesperson laid the blame on the company’s "dedicated User Operations Team," and reviewers in "several offices around the globe," who look at "millions of pieces of this content a day."

Bea Arthur Naked
John Currin (B. 1962), Bea Arthur Naked, oil on canvas, painted in 1991. Estimate: $1,800,000 – $2,500,000. (John Currin/Christie's)

“As you might expect,” she concluded, “occasionally, we make a mistake and block a piece of content we shouldn't have.” She said Facebook has an appeals process in place for anyone who thinks they’ve been wrongly banned, and directed me here.

We weren’t the only ones locked out by Ms. Arthur’s rack. A few journalists who work for other news organizations here in New York City told me they were also temporarily banned from Facebook after posting the same photo. But there’s no hard feelings—and no perfect system for weeding out actual pervs.

“[Facebook has] been really great about handling it very quickly,” a staffer at another website affected by the Bea Ban told The Daily Beast, adding that “moderation is a pain in the ass.”

By 2 p.m, after several emails and a phone call, The Daily Beast was back in business. And there on our page, just where we’d left it on Tuesday, was a photo of Bea Arthur’s breasts.