Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No SeepeopleS

An op-ed by Will Bradford

A still from the video for “New American Dream,” animated by Pete List. image/courtesy SeepeopleS

In 2017, my band SeepeopleS released an EP, HATE, and hired the world-renown animator Pete List — best known for his work in the ’90s on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match — to make a music video for us. After getting to know each other and realizing our social and political beliefs were pretty much in step, we began to conceptualize and storyboard what eventually become the video for the song “New American Dream.” Pete produced a brilliant visualization of the song as well as a veritable history lesson with the message that “power corrupts absolutely.” We wanted to present the lust for power as a sickness, an illness passed on through generations. The video certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel. In our view, it simply continued an age-old narrative of rebellion and political self-realization that’s been expressed by artists for centuries. We dedicated the video to “those who worship at the altars of power,” just in case some didn’t get it.

The video was viewed over a quarter of a million times on Facebook, was shared by over 5,000 people, was nominated for an Independent Music Award (Best Video, 2017) and won a Pixie Award (2017) for the animator. We were extremely happy with the response and felt it vindicated our decision to spend a significant amount of money on the video — a risky move for an indie band like SeepeopleS that survives on a shoestring budget. We used the video, or clips from it, in all our social-media marketing (including online advertisements and sponsored posts) for months afterward.

Fast forward to April of this year, shortly after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress. We became aware that sponsored posts containing footage from the video were being labeled “unapproved” by Facebook.  Many of these were re-posts of ads we’d run in the past. We also started getting notices that the video was being reported by users as “inappropriate,” and some were blocking it from appearing on their timelines.

This came as no surprise. The band members and I had received several death threats in the months following the video’s release. We fully expected to draw the ire of Trump’s minions, knew full well we were being reported and blocked by politically conservative users, and, quite frankly, we were thrilled that we’d evoked the intended reactions. However, over the next few weeks, all of our sponsored Facebook posts were “unapproved,” whether the post contained footage from the video or not. We also started receiving notices that we were not “authorized” to post political content. It became apparent that the SeepeopleS Facebook account had been reclassified as that of a political organization, rather than a rock band.

At first we figured, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So we went through the “authorization” process, which involves passports, drivers’ licenses, proof of address (also no surprise in the wake of the Russian bot controversy) and formal communication with Facebook via the U.S. Postal Service. Despite finally being “authorized to post political content,” this past July Facebook removed the video from our band pages and banned it from all their platforms, including Instagram. We were informed that it did not meet online community standards. If you are ever bored to the point of insanity, I suppose you could read Facebook’s community standards. They’re both horrifying and pretentious. But I must concede that point: the video does not meet those standards. And therein lies the real problem.

When I thought about this more, I realized my Facebook feed was inundated with political content — much of it, in my opinion, in clear violation of FB/IG community standards. I did some research into the real reasons why the video was being banned. I’d initially envisioned some closed-minded schmuck at Facebook HQ purposefully undermining SeepeopleS because he considered the video offensive. But as I learned more about how social-media platforms work, I came to understand that the Facebook “community” itself was to blame.

As the video got reported and blocked by more users, math became our enemy. Facebook’s algorithms caused our account to fall into “poor health,” as a FB employee put it during an online chat we had. Too many angry clicks! At one point, every single one of my accounts, both private and professional, as well as the accounts of others who work with the band, were all threatened with deletion. We had to remove additional content and were warned not to post any content that was even remotely related to the video. Especially egregious in Facebook’s eyes is content that references or contains images of Donald Trump — that’s the reason we had to become “authorized” to post political content. It is, of course, no coincidence that this same content is the type most reported as “inappropriate” by users.

As the existence of one of my band’s biggest artistic statements was being erased, I pondered the potential future of provocative art in the world of virtual communities and social media. Was social media actually the perfect instrument for self-censorship? Was it just as Aldous Huxley predicted it would be in his seminal book, Brave New World? Would we sacrifice our rights, our liberty, humanity and our dignity for comfort, convenience, security of mind and, most importantly, distraction?

I’m not really sure where we all go from here. The band and I leave for tour soon and, for the first time in half a decade, we’re touring without the support of sponsored ads or online advertising on the Internet’s most populated platforms. The fight for an audience — a struggle I am very familiar with — couldn’t be harder now. I’m not sure a working band can even survive without social-media promotion and marketing these days.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that I am more afraid for us than I have ever been. It doesn’t seem like the merry Jetsons future of my childhood imagination anymore. I have thought for some time now that we are collectively spiraling out of control, and social media is leading us into a dangerous cultural dead-end. This experience with “New American Dream” has reaffirmed my somber suspicions.

Perhaps we need to claim a moment to reflect on how social media is changing our lives, and whether these changes will make our society better, or make our culture more vibrant. What is the future of art, music and literature in this virtual world? I can’t help but wonder how the next Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Dead Kennedys, Langston Hughes, Basquiat, Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy, Gil Scott Heron, or the next Banksy will ever be discovered if we’re too busy reporting and blocking works like theirs because they don’t adhere to our community standards.

Will Bradford lives in Portland. For more on his band, and to watch the video for “New American Dream,” visit seepeoples.com.