Flipping through Snapchat’s filters on a Friday morning, one of our colleagues noticed one we hadn’t seen before, a weird one that appeared to be a parody of the Washington Redskins’s logo, complete with a disparaging message about Donald Trump.
Everyone at The Washington Post with a Snapchat account could pull it up. But in nearby Dupont Circle, it was missing from the rotation. No sign of the filter in Georgetown, either. It seemed likely that the filter was purchased to show up only in a small area of Washington, which included The Post’s building.
After walking around downtown, we found that the filter disappeared within a block or two of our building. Weird, right?
“My gut says this is for us,” wrote our colleague in Slack, joking, “the call is coming from inside the house.”
Snapchat confirmed in an email that we were seeing was an “on-demand” filter, meaning that it was designed and purchased by a third party for a smaller-scale display. But beyond that, the company couldn’t “share customer info such as who purchased it, where or for how long,” a spokesman said.
Because Snapchat doesn’t give out specific information about who buys on-demand filters, and the person who created this particular one hasn’t volunteered that information, we don’t know whether the person behind this filter was targeting The Washington Post — a publication that covers the Washington Redskins and Donald Trump extensively — or not.
If it was a calculated move, our guess would be the buyer did so to try to get us to write an article about it. If that’s the case, then congratulations, mysterious stranger! Here is the article.
So, who did this? At this point, we’re not sure. (If it was you, please let us know.)
Google generated exactly zero search results for the text that appears over the Trump image — “Worse for Washington than Shanahan” — ruling out any slogan possibilities. That reference itself is hyperlocal, if a bit dated. Mike Shanahan hasn’t coached the football team since 2013, having won an abysmal 24 games during his four-year tenure. But head coach Jay Gruden’s win percentage over the past two seasons with the team isn’t that much better.
The only direct connection we could make between Shanahan and Trump was a fundraiser held by the former for the latter. But that event wasn’t even close to The Post, let alone Washington. It was held in Colorado on the day the filter appeared 1,700 miles away.
It’s fairly easy for someone to make a filter like this one. As opposed to Snapchat’s sponsored filters — which are labeled as ads within the program — Snapchat’s on-demand filters are designed to be cheap, customizable, and specific to a location as small as a single household. There are also community filters, the permanent ones that show up when you’re in a particular place, like at a college or in the District.
As the Ringer recently reported in a story on the cottage industry of geofilter graphic designers, community filters are a bit harder to get approved than “on-demand” filters. That makes sense, because the latter tend to be more ephemeral. Community filters can be submitted by anybody, whether they’re a part of the community in question or not, as can any on-demand filter. This is exactly what happened to the Ringer, their article details. The publication received an on-demand filter for their office. But it wasn’t created internally; it was created by a third-party developer whose name appears in the filter. “Hire me” displays in the upper left-hand corner.
Pretty much anyone who agrees to abide by Snapchat’s community guidelines and survives the moderation process can set an on-demand filter live for as little as $5, depending on size and duration. Their very accessibility is part of their appeal: You can make a custom filter for a wedding or graduation, or even a house party. Weekend at the beach? Make a filter! Baby shower? Filter! Scavenger hunt? You get the idea.
Snapchat says personal purchases account for about 40 percent of on-demand filters, while the rest are purchased by businesses. Assuming that our weird little filter was live for about 24 hours (it disappeared at 2 p.m. Friday), we guessed that it cost the designer about $50.
Though this filter was a first for The Post, geofilters have gotten caught up in political trolling. Sen. Ted Cruz’s GOP primary campaign purchased a sponsored “Ducking Donald” filter to mock the now-presumed presidential nominee’s decision to skip out on a televised debate. Presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has been the subject and the creator of sponsored troll filters, too. The conservative group Judicial Watch made a sponsored filter that referred to Clinton’s emails; the Clinton campaign created a sponsored filter that appeared at one of Trump’s own rallies in May. In all these cases, the filters were sponsored and labeled as such within the app.
Obviously, this all raises some questions about whether geofilters are going to become the next Internet feature to suffer an acute harassment problem. Snapchat’s Community Guidelines apply to the filter creation process, too, and they ban “harassment, bullying, or spamming,” “threats,” and “invasion of privacy.” Each filter is reviewed by a human being, and part of that person’s job is to make sure that the filters don’t violate those guidelines. It remains to be seen, however, how those policies are enforced in the face of more subtle violations.
While a filter containing a direct death threat might be easily rejected, what about one simply meant to point out that some troll online knows the home address of their target? One colleague posited that someone could make a filter, say, congratulating a co-worker on a pregnancy that hasn’t been announced, which would be an invasion of privacy, but would not look like one. Since filters can be live for mere hours, there are also potential documentation issues at play.
Geofilters joined the cyber world just months ago, and a lot of these questions are still hypothetical. We’re interested in seeing what happens when they become real.
And now, a call-out: Please let us know if you’ve had someone send you a message —- good, bad or neutral — through a custom geofilter since the process was opened up earlier this year. And, if you designed the one we saw at work, can you tell us why?
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