Alaska artist Marcus Gho’s work, which features otter pelt, is once again for sale online, but only after he satisfied Etsy he doesn’t use fur from a threatened species of otter. (Marcus Gho/Etsy.com)

The North’s way of life is no match for social media’s prudish algorithms

Northerners now find their cultures under a new kind of puritan scrutiny

Last week, Etsy.com, an e-commerce website that’s favoured by artists to sell their work, decreed that Marcus Gho’s otter-fur artwork was no longer allowed to be sold on its site.

Gho, an Inupiaq artist in Alaska, makes jewelry, clothing and baubles with fur from sea otters. He was, according to the Associated Press, one of several Alaskan artists affected by the blanket ban.

The reason behind Etsy’s decision was more or less sound: It wanted to clamp down on the sale of work made from species at risk, specifically elephant ivory and, in Gho’s case, what Etsy thought was fur from Alaskan northern sea otters, which are threatened.

But Gho, who lives in Juneau, uses fur from southeast Alaskan sea otters, which are not threatened. I couldn’t tell you the difference between northern and southeast otter fur at a glance, and, evidently, neither could Etsy. So perhaps the confusion is understandable.

All’s well that ends well, in a sense. Gho’s work is back up on his page after he satisfied Etsy that his materials are sustainable. He seems content with the outcome. “Thank you to Etsy for allowing me to relist my sea otter fur handicrafts,” he wrote on his page Feb. 10. “Each of my items now includes information in the listing that specifies the sub-population of sea otters I use, which sub-population are neither threatened or endangered.”

Still, the dispute was significant enough to draw the attention of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who wrote to Etsy urging the company to allow the sale of work made with sustainable ivory from walruses or petrified mammoth tusk.

But in a letter to Sullivan quoted by AP, Etsy says it won’t budge on the ivory, even though walruses are plentiful and mammoth have been extinct for millenia. Etsy’s reason, AP reports, is that the company is moving away from national and local laws — trade in non-elephant ivory is legal in the U.S. — to international standards to “reflect the increasingly global nature of our business and community.”

This sort of thing is becoming increasingly common as the behemoth companies that run the world’s most popular social media networks sweep across regions once considered “remote.”

We also saw it last year when Facebook temporarily blocked the sale of products made with seal skin in Nunavut.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of seals to Inuit culture and Facebook groups offering the sale of sealskin-based handicrafts do brisk business. In Canada’s poorest territory, such sales are of great economic importance and the craftsmanship helps preserve traditional knowledge.

To Facebook’s credit, it reversed the decision after CBC caught wind of the story. The company told CBC it would be interested in hearing from Nunavummiut to learn how the social network could “work better for this community.”

“We recognize the deep importance of seal and other animal products to Indigenous Canadians and want to clarify that products like the one the seller posted are allowed for sale on our platform,” Facebook said in a statement to CBC.

But Facebook, as the world’s dominant social network, keeps getting in trouble for this sort of thing. It banned the famous photo of Kim Phúc, the nine-year old Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack, one of the most searing and iconic images of the Vietnam War. It banned a piece of 1920s Renaissance-style art for depicting a woman’s breast. Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo sharing app, has driven artists, including Canadian Ambera Wellman, nuts with its prudishness over nipples.

To be sure, Facebook and other networks have a right to keep pornography off their sites. And they have a duty to curtail sexually-exploitative imagery, including child pornography, which is objectively criminal.

But in far too many cases, the algorithms that increasingly rule our lives are designed to conform to the most tepid of American social mores.

This should concern us in the North, where, for example, hunting is still not only a central part of our cultural identities, but also a key source of sustenance for many. As these social media sites now enable anyone’s photos to go anywhere in an instant, Northerners now find their cultures under a new kind of puritan scrutiny.

Just this week, CBC reported that an Inuk hunter from Labrador was swamped with racist abuse on Facebook for posting a photo of a legally-hunted polar bear.

“People are saying that they’re almost extinct and that they shouldn’t even be killed and that the people killing them should be strung up or thrown in jail,” Darrell Voisey told the CBC. “I guess some people just don’t know the way that we live up this way.”

People who have never set foot in the North or the Arctic declare themselves experts on how Northerners should live. Indigenous people are often told they should forego modern tools like rifles and hunt with bows.

Or, it is sometimes suggested, they should just go to the grocery store. This one is offered by people who have clearly never laid eyes on the limp and hyperbolically-expensive produce at a Northern store in, say, Pond Inlet.

This is a modern, high-tech variant on the old argument that “savages” need to be taught the benefits of civilization, regardless of their own wishes. Colonialism didn’t die. It just went viral.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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