Meanwhile, I have scrolled past exceedingly graphic adult content on Twitter, which does not prohibit depictions of “bodily fluids” as long as users flag it as sensitive media. While Twitter does prohibit “violent sexual conduct,” the policy seems only to apply to rape and sexual assault as opposed to consensual violence, as in BDSM.
Twitter doesn’t restrict adult content because it doesn’t have guidelines for adult content. At all. At the time of writing this article, there are no policies limiting adult content on Twitter as long as it’s consensually produced, appropriately flagged as sensitive, and not included in more publicly visible areas like profile pictures or header photos. (I do not include CSEM as “adult content” because it, by definition, does not feature adults.)
Historically, while Twitter was never as hostile to sex workers as, say, Meta, it maintains what one Twitter employee told me is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards us. And despite its lack of content policy, Twitter does algorithmically suppress adult content, whether intentionally or not.
Realistically, not even Twitter knows how its algorithms are applied, as is the case with most machine-learning algorithms used by social media and search engines. Machine-learning algorithms refine themselves based on user activity that, without interference, codifies the biases of those users. This results in what’s termed algorithmic bias that, in this case, even if unintentional, impacts sex workers most severely. Already, sex workers and activists are more likely to be algorithmically flagged by Twitter for shadowbanning, a practice in which certain users or content is artificially suppressed. Additionally, and similar to Instagram’s algorithms that flag nudity by flesh-toned pixels, Twitter algorithmically identifies adult content not already marked as “sensitive” and restricts it.
Against this backdrop, Musk’s plan to monetize adult content theoretically makes sense from both a business and a social standpoint. From a business standpoint, it will bring in more revenue for Twitter. From a social standpoint, it could prevent algorithmic censorship of sex workers and theoretically destigmatize sex work. Fears that ACM would somehow transform Twitter into “a porn site” or, worse, “a child porn site” are unfounded. If anything, monetizing adult content correctly could greatly reduce the amount of CSEM on Twitter by putting in more safeguards to detect it before it’s posted.
In practice, however, Musk would either have to commit to more content moderation to ensure that CSEM is not on the site—which is in tension with his championing of “free speech”—or double down on the importance of expression with minimal moderation, thus opening the floodgates for gruesome content otherwise kept in the shadows of the dark web and private Facebook groups.
If Twitter rolls out ACM, it will likely face a choice: require all Twitter users to provide age verification in order to prevent posting of or access to CSEM, or ban non-monetized adult content entirely in order to make money from its subscription service. Either way, algorithmic surveillance of all visual media will necessarily intensify.