FaceApp forced to pull 'racist' filters that allow 'digital blackface'
AI-powered program allowed users to edit selfies to fit into ‘Caucasian, Asian, Indian or Black’ categories causing outrage and immediate U-turn
Popular AI-powered selfie program FaceApp was forced to pull new filters that allowed users to modify their pictures to look like different races, just hours after it launched it.
The app, which initially became famous for its features that let users edit images to look older or younger, or add a smile, launched the new filters around midday on Wednesday. They allowed a user to edit their image to fit one of four categories: Caucasian, Asian, Indian or Black.
Users rapidly pointed out that the feature wasn’t particularly sensitively handled: technology site The Verge described it as “tantamount to a sort of digital blackface, ‘dressing up’ as different ethnicities”, while TechCruch said the app “seems to be getting a little too focused on races rather than faces”.
The company initially released a statement arguing that the “ethnicity change filters” were “designed to be equal in all aspects”.
“They don’t have any positive or negative connotations associated with them,” the company’s chief executive Yaroslav Goncharov said. “They are even represented by the same icon. In addition to that, the list of those filters is shuffled for every photo, so each user sees them in a different order.”
But by 5pm on the same day, FaceApp apparently agreed with the criticism, pulling the new filters from its app.
It’s not even the first time the app has waded into this storm. In April, it came under fire for its “hot” filter, which was supposed to make users look more attractive. In the process, it also lightened their complexion, leading to uncomfortable questions about what the AI had been taught about the nature of beauty.
It isn’t only small applications which make these blunders. Snapchat faced similar opprobrium for a filter which made users look like late reggae singer Bob Marley, replete with cartoon dreadlocks and a cap; whats more, the filter was released on 20 April 2016, a day (“4/20”) known for its association with weed culture – leading to accusations the company was cheapening Marley’s legacy.