This app got into some big trouble with users, who pointed out that the "hot" filter visibly whitened their skin.
Even when you put aside the current political climate, where factions of neo-Nazi’s and white supremacists are popping up because they feel empowered by certain political leaders, there has always been this cultural notion that ‘white is right‘ and that European features are the most attractive. This is not only intrinsically wrong, after centuries of systematic racism that has led to the plight of people of color, but it’s also horrible if it is applied in the real world to continue to degrade people of color even in the most minuscule ways.
Degraded is exactly how people felt after using the popular FaceApp, an app designed to apply filters to the face in an uploaded photo. Though there are a lot of apps that have this function, FaceApp reached viral popularity and some of the millions of users discovered that something was not right with their “hot” filter. According to the description for the filter in the App Store, it was supposed to make you “become more attractive,” but once people realized exactly what that means in the app they weren’t having it.
“Everything on this app is great except for one problem. The hot feature makes black people white. That is extremely racist,” one user said in the App Store reviews.
— Shahquelle L. (@RealMoseby96) April 20, 2017
Users, especially people of color, accused the app of whitewashing their faces in an attempt to make them “more attractive” with the “hot” filter, meaning they believe that being whiter is more attractive. It not only visibly whitened the skin of dark-skinned users, but some realized that it also thinned out their noses to be more “European” and in one documented case even removed a users glasses and replaced her eyes with “white people eyes.”
Once the complaints started rolling in, FaceApp changed the name of the filter to “spark” (all of the names are in emojis) to “exclude any positive connotation associated with it.” However, the damage was done and people were still angry about the blatant whitewashing. As a result, the app removed the filter completely.
FaceApp isn’t the only filter app that has received complaints about whitewashing. Though not as dramatic, Snapchat features filters like the flower crown one that visibly lighten skin and at one point had an anime filter that used an Asian caricature with yellow skin. Despite backlash, none of it has been as harsh as the reaction to FaceApp’s filter.
When asked for a comment by Allure magazine, FaceApp creator and CEO Yaroslav Goncharov blamed the app’s algorithm for the mishap.
“We are deeply sorry for this unquestionably serious issue. It is an unfortunate side-effect of the underlying neural network caused by the training set bias, not intended behavior,” Goncharov said. “We are also working on the complete fix that should arrive soon.”
Evidently, the only complete fix was to delete the filter altogether. Though FaceApp surely suffered for this, it’s still wildly popular and has hopefully become a lesson for all on what will and will not be accepted going forward.