The arc of the internet’s moral universe is kinda short and bends based on outrage. If you need evidence of that, look no further than the less-than-24-hour debacle FaceApp just found itself in. Recently, the popular image manipulation program FaceApp released four new “ethnicity” filters. Yes, you read that correctly: ethnicity filters. (I promise you this isn’t going to get much better.) Similar to its previous age filters and (admittedly kind of problematic) gender filters, these “ethnicity” filters allowed users to morph their faces to look “Caucasian,” “Indian,” “black,” and “Asian” based on algorithms determined by the app.
To clarify, that means someone somewhere proposed “looking like other ethnicities” as a form of app-based entertainment, and then multiple someones were like “yeah great make that available to the masses stat.” In a word: Yikes.
Less than 12 hours after the update was issued, FaceApp pulled their “ethnicity” filters amid a whole lot of backlash, most notably from people on Twitter. Multiple tweets described the filters as digital blackface and yellowface, noting how the app changed their skin tone and facial features to reflect arguably stereotypic portrayals of each ethnicity. While there is much to be said about outrage culture as a whole, it’s probably best that this backlash made blackface a little less accessible or, at the very least, less encouraged.
In a statement to Bustle via email, FaceApp creator and CEO Yaroslav Goncharov defended the app writing, “The ethnicity change filters have been designed to be equal in all aspects. They don’t have any positive or negative connotations associated with them. 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.” Goncharov also noted that the filters have since been removed from the app.
Referring to these filters as digital blackface and yellowface really isn’t much of a stretch. In fact, these filters don’t feel too far removed from the historic act of people who are not black, brown, or Asian making themselves look stereotypically black, brown, or Asian for entertainment purposes. As Rhett Jones writes for Gizmodo, “No matter how well “designed” these features are, they perpetuate stereotypes and call back to an era when dressing up as caricatures of other races was a common form of comedy.” Like, do we really need another reminder not to do blackface?
This isn’t even the first time FaceApp has been called out for questionable filters regarding race. Earlier this year, FaceApp’s “hot” filter was criticized for having whitewashing problem. The filter was billed as a way to make your selfie look more attractive. In reality, it significantly lightened users’ skin tone as well as narrowed their noses. “We are deeply sorry for this unquestionably serious issue,” Goncharov said in an apology to The Guardian. “It is an unfortunate side effect of the underlying neural network caused by the training set bias, not intended behavior.” The “hot” filter was also removed from the app.
While FaceApp's intention may have not been to offend in either case, it certainly was read as offensive by many. Given that this is the app's second race-related misstep in less than four months, perhaps it's time to consider other less controversial ways to see what your face would look like aged 50 years. Fool me twice, FaceApp.