neptune

Is this an example of the tyranny of the algorithm or an example of the evolving algorithm? Facebook has banned Neptune, or at least one version of his likeness has been banned because the image has been deemed explicitly sexual.

Algorithms, huh. It looks like they may be fulfilling the niche once occupied by Mary Whitehouse – the new censors. They have banned a photo of a statue of Neptune, from the Piazza del Nettuno in the Italian city of Bologna.

The sea god is shown in all his glory, trident in one hand, heavily muscled, a fine specimen of manhood, except, as is so often the case in classical art, not altogether well endowed.

Even so, Facebook algorithms felt it was too much.

Italian art historian and writer Elisa Barbari included an image of the Roman God on her Facebook page: ‘Stories, curiosities and views of Bologna.’

But Facebook sent her a message saying “The use of the image was not approved because it violates Facebook’s guidelines on advertising. It presents an image with content that is explicitly sexual and which shows to an excessive degree the body, concentrating unnecessarily on body parts. The use of images or video of nude bodies or plunging necklines is not allowed, even if the use is for artistic or educational reasons.”

So, there you have it. Don’t decorate your Facebook pages with nude bits, even if they come from statues by Jean de Boulogne, the so-called Italian Giambologna.

Of course, it was a mistake. Later a Facebook spokesman said: “Our team processes millions of advertising images each week, and in some instances, we incorrectly prohibit ads. This image does not violate our ad policies. We apologise for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad.”

But the Facebook apology came too late. Ms Barbari had already kicked off her campaign: “Say yes to Neptune, no to censorship.”

She told the Telegraph “I wanted to promote my page but it seems that for Facebook the statue is a sexually explicit image that shows off too much flesh. Really, Neptune? This is crazy!”

Well, maybe it’s crazy how much publicity a Facebook page on the city of Bologna has garnered.

Here is a tip for entrepreneurs looking for some publicity, trick Facebook algorithms into doing something stupid.

Ms Barbari pointed out, that the statue had been censored before. She said: “Back in the 1950s, during celebrations for schoolchildren graduating, they used to cover up Neptune . . . Maybe Facebook would prefer the statue to be dressed again.”

Well no, it wouldn’t.

The 1950s censorship was a deliberate policy during an era of the prudes. Facebook simply screwed up.

Looking forward you can take a positive or a negative view of this.

The positive way is to highlight how these days machines learn and algorithms adapt. Errors such as this will serve to make the algorithms applied by Facebook more discerning, and able to see the difference between Renaissance art and pornography.

The negative interpretation is to talk about the tyranny of the algorithm, and how the little guy (no pun intended) is powerless to fight against rules that bear no correspondence with reality. The fix to that comes in the form of Facebook setting up some form of human arbitration – supervised by algorithm, of course.