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Adore Me, a lingerie company, has called out social media streaming platform TikTok for discrimination – noting that the app had removed several of Adore Me’s videos featuring models of color and plus-size models.
“The app’s algorithm was openly built with discrimination at its core,” Adore Me wrote Thursday on Twitter, noting that while TikTok has insisted its algorithm has improved since earlier criticism, the lingerie company believes otherwise.
“Adore Me has regularly seen the removal of our content on TikTok that features plus-size, Black, and/or differently abled models and women of color,” Adore Me said in a subsequent tweet. “This is unacceptable and discriminatory, and we will not stand for it.”
Jamie Favazza, spokesperson for TikTok, told USA TODAY that the platform doesn’t moderate content based on appearance or ability.
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TikTok videos removed weren’t about lingerie, Adore Me claims
The problem isn’t new, Ranjan Roy, vice president of strategy for Adore Me, told USA TODAY. TikTok has periodically taken down videos posted by Adore Me since the brand joined the platform.
At first, he and his team assumed the removals were due to Adore Me’s lingerie products. They thought TikTok was potentially “being more stringent about skin versus other platforms.”
In its Twitter thread, the brand acknowledged that its products and marketing may push boundaries of what is allowed by social media platforms.
“That said, years of working with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and the rest, have built in general expectations around what is acceptable,” Adore Me continued on Twitter. “Even within our own marketing teams, we are incredibly conscious about how we present our products to a general population.”
Image from a TikTok by Adore Me removed by the platform. (Photo: Ranjan Roy, Adore Me)
Adore Me attempted to engage with TikTok in the same way, Roy said, noting that the platform indicated it would help, but the videos were not put back up by the platform.
Over time, a pattern became clear, Roy said: TikTok was removing videos including women of color and videos showing plus-size women.
“Adore Me has a large engineering team that has developed advanced recommendation algorithms for our shopping services, and in conversations between the marketing and engineering teams, it was quickly made clear that the consistency meant something was programmed into the algorithm versus it being random,” Roy said.
Adore Me shared videos removed by TikTok in contrast with videos allowed to remain.
On Twitter, the brand posted two in identical style – one that was removed from TikTok featuring a Black woman and one that remains featuring a white woman.
The next, which is still on TikTok, according to the brand, features a white woman scrolling through Adore Me’s site, commenting on the bra types available.
Another video featuring two women of color – one of whom later dons a prosthetic arm – modeling an array of Adore Me looks was also removed.
TikTok says it doesn’t discriminate
Still, TikTok insists it doesn’t moderate on the basis of appearance or ability.
“The incredible diversity of our users is what makes TikTok such a unique place to create, share, and find community,” company spokesperson Favazza said.
TikTok, she said, strives to foster a community in which every user feels “welcome and comfortable” to express “exactly as they are.”
“Let us be clear: TikTok does not moderate content on the basis of shape, size, or ability, and we continually take steps to strengthen our policies and promote body acceptance,” she said, noting that the platform has restricted ads for fasting apps and weight loss supplements.
On a matter not related to the assertion USA TODAY asked about, TikTok added that it has partnered with the National Eating Disorders Association to support users that may be struggling. In December, the platform launched an investigation into pro-eating-disorder content posted to it website, according to the Guardian, which was able to find accounts dedicated to weight loss in a quick search.
That matter was ongoing, too. In March, Wired reporter Ysabel Gerrard wrote on TikTok’s “pro-anorexia problem” stating that the app needed to reevaluate its algorithm for personalized content which was “working exactly as it should” by giving users what they search for. Last February, Buzzfeed also reported on the content viewers were seeing including users eating ice chips, fasting for days or sleeping to avoid eating at all.
If you search for “proanorexia” on TikTok now, a contact for the National Eating Disorder Association appears.
What is TikTok’s history of content removal?
TikTok responded to Adore Me through the company’s head of social media Friday afternoon. In its email to Adore Me, obtained by USA TODAY, TikTok told the company that three videos had been “removed in error” and that they had been reinstated on the company’s account.
“For us, TikTok saying these were ‘removed in error’ after some have been down for months, while still not providing a clear explanation of how they have fixed the algorithmic problems outlined last March, is not remotely sufficient,” Roy said.
Adore Me also pointed out in its Twitter thread that stories claiming TikTok discrimination have already surfaced, citing a March article from The Intercept, which sourced leaked internal documents that TikTok moderators were told to repress content by creators they deemed “ugly,” “obese,” having “obvious beer belly,” “too thin,” having “facial deformities” – the list goes on.
At the time, Josh Gartner, a TikTok spokesperson, told The Intercept that “most of” the guidelines they reported on were “either no longer in use” or in certain instances “never have been in place.”
In April, the University of California-Berkeley School of Information’s Marc Faddoul shared research with Recode that pointed out TikTok highlighted only users to follow who appeared to look similar to those they recently followed.
“The part that was the most infuriating was – the problem is clearly in the public, yet nothing is being done,” Roy said.
Roy added that the company chose to use its official Twitter account in hopes of starting a dialogue about TikTok’s algorithm. And it did, garnering about 3,000 retweets, more than 6,000 likes and more than 2,500 replies by midday Friday.
“Dear @tiktok_us, Representation matters. Strong community user guidelines matter. Please fix this,” wrote Twitter user Kristin Van Ramshorst, who quoted the thread shared by Adore Me.
Another Twitter user, @perfectly_kayla, wrote that the thread from the brand should be “mandatory reading for everyone who engages with Tik Tok.”
“This is incredibly important because the past decade has shown us what happens when we as a society do not actively hold the algorithms that underlie social media platforms to account,” Roy said. “Just sitting back and hoping they keep themselves in check has not worked out.”
TikTok, which had grown 800% in August from 2018, according to CNBC, is a “cultural force,” as Roy says. He and his team believe that brands, users and policymakers need to work together to ensure platforms are built in a safe, accountable and equitable fashion.
“TikTok is to become a greater centerpiece for our popular culture, we need to have a better understanding of exactly how it chooses what to censor and what to promote,” Roy said.
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