*This story has been updated with a statement from Tom of Finland Foundation.
For about 15 hours between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the Instagram account for the Tom of Finland Foundation went dark. In that time, fans of the iconic gay artist’s work started a social media campaign to get the account restored. For them, this was the latest in a long string of censorship by the platform against queer creators. Screenshots of an email, allegedly from Instagram, were circulated. And then, on Thursday at around 2 p.m. EST, the account came back, unaltered. But what exactly happened?
On Wednesday night, when the @TomOfFinlandFoundation handle first disappeared from the service, S.R. Sharp, the vice president of the foundation, told Out that the account had been banned by Instagram.
The timing of the move was certainly interesting enough. This weekend, the foundation will host its arts and culture festival, this year titled “Our Community Guidelines.” It’s a commentary on censorship, and they will be awarding *artist Don Bachardy with an award.
"We are currently showing artists at the house that have had their [Instagram] accounts deactivated," Sharp told The Advocate in a story published earlier today. "I think a lot more people are aware of us. There's a lot more pepper attacking us the more visible we become. … And the more we become a target."
The Advocate sourced a screenshot of an email, provided to them by the Foundation, that’s allegedly from Instagram.
“Hi , Dear @TomOfFinlandFoundation” the email said. “We have permanently deleted your account from our servers; because your account violated our community guidelines. We warned you about this, but you continued to violate community guidelines. Such accounts are never reactivated, Best regards.”
The email does not follow the format of similar censorship emails sent out by Instagram that have been viewed by Out. It also contains grammatical mistakes. The screenshot first appeared on social media, with accounts like the poppers brand Double Scorpio posting it.
When contacted by Out, Instagram representatives confirmed that the platform did not disable the TomOfFinlandFoundation account. Though the Tom of Finland Foundation has commented to The Advocate and have also been in correspondence with Out since Wednesday night, they did not send a statement by time of publication on Thursday. on Friday, the Foundation released a statement to Instagram.
"We are still unsure who targeted and removed our account and why, but have been in touch with Instagram directly and are heartened by their assurance that it was not disabled by them," they wrote.
So again, what happened?
The reality of this moment is that we are in a darkening sex panic when it comes to queer creation online. For queer erotic artists, there are very few social media platforms through which to show their work. Gio Black Peter, who has held a close relationship with the Foundation and is an artist in his own right, is on his 10th Instagram account so far (in September, that 10th account was deleted and brought back twice). In solidarity with the Foundation, he adapted an essay he wrote in 2017 ahead of his curated exhibition Violators, which contained art from various artists that had been censored on Instagram. That updated essay, now posted to his feed, has been shared widely by other queer artists.
This context has created an extremely heightened environment around any signs of possible censorship. And it’s in that environment that Tom of Finland Foundation likely fell victim to a phishing hacker.
The email that allegedly came from Instagram contains telltale signs that it is a forgery. If someone who operated the Foundation account clicked on a link, or input their information (including their passwords) into it, it could have very well given this information to someone else who then deleted the account themselves. And while Tom of Finland Foundation has enough clout, and enough followers to get the situation sorted out within a few hours, independent users are usually not as lucky.
*This piece incorrectly stated that Tom Bianchi was getting an award at the festival. Don Bachardy is receiving an award.