Molly Mallon used Hinge and Tinder in an unconventional way over the last year. Sure, she was on the apps to meet people, but she was also committed to raising awareness about the mounting reproductive rights crisis. In one of her Hinge prompts for the question, “All I ask is that you…,” Mallon answered, “Donate to my abortion fundraiser,” providing a link so her potential matches could do just that. It was, after all, all she asked.
Last fall, around the same time Texas’s abortion ban took effect, Mallon says she received several “swipe notes” (messages Tinder users can send without matching with someone) from men calling her a “murderer.” Shortly after, she lost access to her dating profiles on both Tinder and Hinge. “I wasn’t sending rude messages or bullying or harassing, or anything like that,” she told Jezebel. “I was honestly barely even talking to anybody. My only guess, especially because it happened right after I got those gross messages, is I was reported and banned for supporting abortion.”
Apps are inundated daily with reports of users supposedly violating community guidelines, some of which flag actually dangerous individuals. Others are submitted solely to get someone banned. These malicious reports may be made for political reasons: Throughout 2020, numerous Tinder users spoke up about being banned after sharing petitions or otherwise expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement on their profiles. They can also be interpreted as attacks on someone’s very identity.
About 270 million people are on dating apps, and Mallon is one of many who have been banned for reasons that—while they may have their hunches—remain ultimately unknown. The irony, of course, is that dating apps encourage us to be ourselves in our profiles, to share the values and facets of our identities that are indelible to who we are, all in pursuit of honest, vulnerable love. In turn, some of the people who actually do this are unceremoniously booted, in most cases without any communication about why beyond veiled language citing others’ safety. Their own ability to be their authentic selves is treated as secondary.
After banning her, Tinder told Mallon she had “violated rules without specifying which rules,” and didn’t offer an appeals process. So, she tried sending an appeal to Hinge, which is owned by Match Group (the same company that owns Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, Our Time, and other dating platforms). In an email from Hinge that Mallon provided to Jezebel, Hinge told her the company “may share user information to remove users who violate our terms of service, or have been reported for criminal activity and/or bad behavior. In some instances, we may remove that user from all platforms.” The email also noted that Mallon’s ban on Hinge stemmed from her Tinder profile, where she also included support for abortion access.
In the internet age, not to mention amid an ongoing, deadly pandemic, dating apps are often the only avenue for people to forge connections—an avenue that for some is being lost to the unpredictable, opaque nature of different apps’ banning processes.
These apps have a history. Tinder, for instance, has doled out bans against trans users when hordes of transphobic users reported them simply for being trans. Nearly six years after Tinder allowed users to specify their gender identity beyond “male” and “female” in 2016, Kat Blaque, a popular YouTuber and Black trans woman, told Jezebel she’s been banned from the app four, maybe five, times. Blaque’s experiences led her to believe “the vast majority of dating apps are tailored to entertain and satisfy cis men.” Her theory, based on her observations and other trans women’s experiences, is that men match with her as they swipe right indiscriminately, only to see that she’s trans, become “incredibly upset” that they matched with a trans woman, and report her.
“It didn’t matter how many times I got an abusive message or a shitty interaction—I would just get banned,” she said. “A lot of these men are pissed off that they’re even given the opportunity to match with trans women.”
As she grew more and more frustrated with “ignorant messages,” Blaque says she jokingly added to her bio, “Venmo me and I’ll educate you on these trans issues,” only for her account to be banned yet again as part of Tinder’s crackdown on sex workers—another type of misguided ban, as many sex workers were on the apps for personal reasons, not to promote their services.
Dating apps have become a breeding ground for discrimination and over-policing of nearly all marginalized people who try to use them. According to a 2016 survey conducted by plus-size dating app WooPlus, 71 percent of its users said they’d been targeted and fat-shamed on mainstream dating apps, often without consequence. Instead, plus-size users can be punished based on how images that show their bodies are perceived.
One former Tinder user, Isabel, who asked for her last name to be withheld, told Jezebel she believes she “was banned for being fat, plain and simple.” Isabel says her Tinder profile was cut off shortly after she added some more revealing photos, including one photo of her in a leotard and another in a bikini. Isabel’s state of dress in the photos adhered to Tinder’s community guidelines, she says, but discrimination and possible reporting from fatphobic users may have led to her account being banned. “Tinder claimed that I had broken their rules by using ‘sexually explicit’ photos,” she said. “The entire situation was unfair. These kinds of photos are common on the app, but because I’m bigger they’re seen as inappropriate.”
Without clear protocols to protect users from excessive, unwarranted, or even discriminatory bans, as well as targeted harassment and false reporting, many have come to feel unwelcome on dating apps where they can essentially be removed at any time for any reason—or at least no good reason that’s specified to them.
Plenty of people have been banned from dating apps for, well, legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons that don’t involve targeted reporting. But even when users are banned for clear reasons, some question whether their bans have actually made their respective dating apps any safer.
Matthew Goldin, a writer in Los Angeles, says he was banned by Hinge a couple months ago for sharing a (fake) social security number as a response to the prompt “An overshare,” though he was eventually able to get the ban lifted after a lengthy back-and-forth with Hinge support. “It seemed like they were trying to protect me from making myself a victim of identity theft,” he told Jezebel. “I guess that’s good, but there are people in the app who are actually predatory and out to harm others, so it seems like that should be more of the focus than preventing people from suffering from their own stupidity.”
Jake, who also asked for his last name to be withheld, was banned from Grindr in 2019 while studying abroad in Paris, after he changed his headline to “ecstasy svp”—short for “s’il vous plaît,” or “please,” in French. He told Jezebel he was just “looking for drugs in a new city,” as one does, and “did not yet have an established plug.” Shortly after, he was banned for “illegal activity” on the app.
“I think Grindr could’ve given me a warning rather than completely ban my account at the button-press of one French gay Karen,” Jake said. “There are way more issues to address [on Grindr] rather than drugs. I would receive at least 20 unsolicited dick and/or anus pictures within an hour.”
Some users accept their punishment—they just want to know definitively why they received it. They find the lack of transparency frustrating.
George, who likewise asked for his last name to be withheld, is a straight man who says he opened his Tinder to all genders, but specified in his profile that he was looking “to find some shrooms for my birthday” while visiting a friend in Southern California. His account was soon banned, though he wasn’t given a reason, and says he isn’t sure whether he was reported or if he “just sent the same message one too many times.” (He did ultimately locate shrooms within 10 minutes on the app OfferUp.)
Another man, who asked for his real name to be withheld, says he has no idea why he was banned from Tinder one day last year. After unsuccessfully reaching out to Tinder Support to try to have the ban reversed, not believing he’d violated any community guidelines, he tried to circumvent it by creating new accounts, including with a Google Voice phone number and on his work phone. That worked only briefly before he logged into the new account on his personal phone, which was immediately banned. He’s since been using Grindr and Bumble, but as someone who splits his time in Mexico, this presents a problem because “Tinder is the only app that’s generally used in other countries.”
“It’s fine, but I just want closure—I just want to know why,” he told Jezebel. “Like, sure, don’t let me back on the app, but just tell me why.”
Sophie Sieck, senior communications manager at Tinder for product, says Tinder is aware of the targeted reporting and subsequent erroneous banning of trans people, people of color, and other marginalized groups, and is trying to address it. The app has a general form on its website to get in touch with its support team, but is still working on developing a formal appeals process for users who might have no idea why they were banned. The app also uses machine learning and keyword monitoring to identify and ban “bad actors, spam armies, people who are trying to use the app nefariously,” and has a partnership with Garbo, a company that provides background checks on sexual and violent crimes. Ultimately, as Sieck admits, Tinder’s safety measures remain a work-in-progress.
Spokespeople from Hinge, Grindr, and Bumble each told Jezebel their respective apps use a combination of machine learning technology, moderators, and user reporting to detect violations and issue bans. The apps explained that they rarely provide the reason someone is banned for safety purposes, including to protect other users who may be suspected of having reported the banned individual, or to prevent users from circumventing bans in the future.
No number of tweaks in the system or gender-inclusive corporate language can change the fact that online and in real life, if women or non-binary people upset straight men for any reason, they’re often subject to harassment and retaliation like mass-reporting on Tinder. But you can’t beat the apps for unparalleled convenience and accessibility, so to the apps women and non-binary people—and men, and people looking for drugs—go. They project their true selves onto their profiles: their identities, their romantic values, their political affiliations, their desire to have a good time, without hateful speech. And then, some lose access to that sole means of connection because of what they’ve put out into the world, however harmless. For these people, nebulous safety concerns don’t justify such an isolating outcome.