Image Detail: “Jesus Goes to His Execution” by Doug Blanchard
When Facebook repeatedly rejected ads for an LGBTQ book on the Passion of Christ recently, it revealed how religious dialogue can be limited in the social-media age.
Censorship in social media, especially social-media advertising, is a legal grey area with few laws and precedents to govern it. The queer Passion of Christ book may have triggered two types of restricted keywords: religion and sexuality. No wonder alarm bells were ringing.
Crucifying the Son of God truly was obscene.
But that is not what bothered Facebook staff (or their bots using automated algorithms) when they singled out ads for The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision four times in the past two years.
The book features my reflections on Doug Blanchard’s paintings of Jesus as a contemporary gay man in a modern city during his final days, including his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Facebook rejected the book ads at various times as too “shocking,” “pornography” or “scary.” They missed the deeper meaning and apparently screened them out based on taboo keywords and image recognition analysis that detects bare-chested men.
Another possibility is that human editors were biased, ignorant or careless.
Three times Facebook reversed its decision and resurrected the ads after we sent letters of appeal. The third rejection was reversed recently on March 16.
These events illustrate a thorny issue of larger importance: Freedom to discuss religion may be limited in a social-media landscape dominated by corporate giants whose agenda is profit. Alternative religious voices in particular may be muffled and marginalized.
Does the Facebook ad approval process have the proverbial “chilling effect” on free speech? As one of those on the receiving end of the ad rejections, I can confirm that it does. It’s time-consuming and discouraging when authors have to jump through hoops and decipher elaborate policies every time we want to advertise.
Religious freedom is also at stake: the freedom to believe in a human Jesus, a sexual Jesus, even a gay Jesus.
Experts have noticed the trend and warned potential advertisers: “Some keywords in the ad’s text will likely trigger more control. References to religion…can slow down the review time,” Massimo Chieruzzi writes in an article on AdEspresso.com, which helps businesses optimize Facebook advertising.
In the most recent incident, Facebook shut down a set of ads last night (March 22) because they supposedly promoted an “adult product.” The ads showed the Last Supper, Jesus in prison and the resurrected Christ with his friends. I sent in yet another appeal and am waiting for a response from Facebook as I write this.
In February, Facebook blocked an ad for the Passion book because they said it was “adult material” and “pornography.” The ad showed Jesus on the cross, shirtless but wearing blue jeans, with this text: “LGBT Passion of Christ: Meet a modern Jesus in ‘The Passion of Christ.’ Recommended book for Lent and Holy Week.”
The ad itself doesn’t seem remotely pornographic or sexually suggestive.
It was approved on appeal and it ran for a month before Facebook shut it down again in early March. This time the same crucifixion image was deemed too “scary, gory or sensational.”
When the Passion book was first published in 2014, Facebook rejected a different ad for the book by using another justification. They said it was too “shocking” because it showed a wounded Jesus carrying his cross. Specifically they stated that it violated their prohibition on images of “dead or dismembered bodies, ghosts, zombies, ghouls and vampires.”
Their reasoning seemed so ridiculous that one blog created a “zombie Jesus” cartoon when covering the controversy. Neither ad used the book’s most controversial image, which shows Jesus kissing God during his Ascension to heaven.
Social media’s byzantine ad approval process results in sanitized, bland content that will offend no one…and enlighten no one either. As Doug wrote in his appeal when the first ad was rejected, “I suspect that Facebook is trying to impose a kind of candied anodyne vision upon the chaotic variety and vitality of human communication that uses its social network.”
Going elsewhere isn’t a viable option because Facebook is so dominant.
Today’s “marketplace of ideas” is often a corporate-owned arena where access is limited by policies based on profit. Facebook’s ad approval process slows me down, but it will not stop me from saying that God loves everyone, including LGBTQ people.
Actually the ad rejections demonstrate the importance of the gay Christian vision. The queer Jesus is needed now because conservatives are using Christian rhetoric to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. Our battles with Facebook censors also energized some readers. Doug and I received congratulatory comments from allies who urged us to see the rejections as badges of honor.
An ad on social media is never a done deal. If an advertisement makes it over the hurdle of Facebook’s initial approval process, it still faces public policing.
In our case, that means religion-based bigotry expressed as comments on social media.
Visitors on the book’s Facebook page condemn us by posting comments such as “You are blasphemers to even suggest or hypothesize about Jesus being gay.”
Maybe if they read the book they would understand that it is appropriate for Christians to explore Jesus’ same-sex attractions because in him God became flesh—a total identification with all people, including the sexually marginalized. Like the black Jesus and woman Christ before him, the gay Jesus enlightens all by filling the void left when a disadvantaged group was excluded from sacred stories.
Many people are surprised to hear about Facebook’s strict advertising policies because they find the site to be packed with sexually suggestive images and hateful content posted by users. Employing keywords to screen ads while allowing other abusive content reminds me of the Pharisees who were denounced by Jesus in Matthew 23:24: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
Facebook regularly makes headlines for rejecting ads related to breastfeeding and breast cancer as “pornographic.”
And Facebook apologized last year to gay photographer Michael Stokes when they reinstated his photos of wounded soldiers. Such incidents happen with alarming frequency. Wrestling with social-media ad rejections is part of the cost of doing business, and in our case, the cost of discipleship.
Image via Rev. Kittredge Cherry