If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that maybe, just maybe you should reconsider before creating a photo filter that characterizes an entire race, let alone multiple ones. To put it mildly, it’s an important lesson, and one apparently missed by FaceApp, a mobile app that lets users take face-swapping and responsive filters to the next level. This week FaceApp launched and then promptly pulled a pack of four “ethnicity” filters in under 24 hours. Brace yourselves, friends. It’s about to get offensive.
The filters—erased from the app but immortalized in memes and rage tweets—are exactly as cringe-worthy as you’d imagine. Equipped with technology that Snapchat didn’t have when that whole yellow-face filter debacle went down, FaceApp’s ethnicity filters took stereotypical caricature to a whole new, weirdly creepy level. Users could choose between four ethnicities—Asian, Indian, Caucasian, and Black—resulting in people being transformed to have different facial features, hair textures, and skin tones.
Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat: FaceApp’s ethnicity filters were not a good look for anyone. The nonwhite ethnicity options are basically just racial stereotypes. While the Caucasian filter looks a bit less rough around the edges, which isn’t surprising since white folks don’t get the short end of the stick when it comes to racism, there’s absolutely no value to these filters. Everybody loses.
FaceApp CEO Yaroslav Goncharov responded to the widespread outrage yesterday via an email to Mic. In it Goncharov clarified that the range of ethnicities offered by the app, plus the order in which they appeared, made the whole thing OK because they’re “equal.” Yes, seriously. Goncharov wrote, in part, “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…≥ [In] addition to that, the list of those filters is shuffled for every photo, so each user sees them in a different order.” Apparently being racist is fine if you’re equally racist! (No, no it’s not.)
Despite this mind-boggling logic, it didn’t take Goncharov long to come to his damn senses and pull the filters. Still, Twitter users do not forgive and they do not forget, as shown by this tiny sampling of outraged tweets.
What breaks my heart about this whole thing is that I think we’re bound to see more instances of digital black, brown, and yellow face as long as the minds behind artificial intelligence are primarily white and privileged. Generally, people move through the world making choices informed by their own lived experiences. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it becomes an issue when millions of people are subjected to products and tools that respect, honor, or acknowledge only a single worldview. In the case of these four FaceApp filters, the ignorance of its creators is glaringly obvious.
While we may never know the full story behind these filters—although, following the pulling of FaceApp’s controversial “hot” filter last year, part of me of can’t help but think this is a play at “any PR is good PR”—I think we can all agree that it’s never OK to wear another person’s ethnicity like a costume. It doesn’t matter if you do it with makeup, clothing, or an app. It should never happen. Full stop.