Once again, TikTok is dealing with deserved backlash over the anti-Black racism in its algorithm—this time, specifically with the social media platform’s hate speech detection systems.
In a recent video, Black TikTok creator Ziggi Tyler pointed out a discovery he made while editing his bio in the app’s Creator Marketplace — the site where influencers and other TikTok accounts with large followings can connect with brands who will pay them to promote products or services. When Tyler tried to type phrases that would indicate he was creating content for a Black audience including “Black Lives Matter” or “Black success,” his content was flagged as “inappropriate,” and yet when he typed in phrases such as “white supremacy” or “white success,” no warning appeared.
In this instance, TikTok told Recode that the app is mistakenly flagging phrases like “Black Lives Matter” because its hate speech detector is triggered by a combination of words involving the words “Black” and “audience” — because “audience” contains the word “die” in it.
That has to be the weakest explanation possible. Does it also flag “ingredient”? What about “medieval”, or “diet”? I’m calling bullshit.
A TikTok spokesperson told Recode that it is actively working to resolve this apparent error in its hate speech detection systems, and said that it was “not indicative of racial bias.” Pray tell then, what exactly is one to make of the fact that the app’s algorithm somehow pulls the three-letter word “die” out of the word “audience” but doesn’t flag the phrase “white supremacy” at all? It’s almost as if despite claims of objectivity, algorithms actually can be racist because they are made by people (who also can also be racist) who work for tech companies (which are definitely racist).
The TikTok spokesperson also added that the app’s policies do not restrict posting about Black Lives Matter.
“Regardless of what the algorithm is and how it picked up, somebody had to program that algorithm,” Tyler told Recode. “And if [the problem] is the algorithm, and the marketplace has been available since , why wasn’t this a conversation you had with your team, knowing there have been racial controversies?” he asked.
This situation is just the latest instance of TikTok’s blatant racism—in fact, Black TikTok creators and influencers have become so fed up with the app’s preferential treatment of white influencers that they recently organized a strike. Essentially, after watching white creators repeatedly get credit for dances choreographed by Black creators, a number of Black them decided to refuse to create a viral dance for the newest Megan Thee Stallion single “Thot Shit.”
The attempts of white TikTok creators to come up with their own dances to the popular song ranged from lackluster to downright pathetic, which more than proved the point of the Black creators. However, it remains to be seen whether this collective action will lead to the platform making meaningful changes in its racist algorithms or treatment of Black creators more generally.