FaceApp, an app that uses neural networks to transform your selfies in some rather eerie ways, introduced filters on Wednesday that promised to change your racial appearance.
The filters allowed users to upload a selfie and select an Asian, black, Caucasian or ‘Indian’ filter. Considering that in-app filters have long struggled to contend with “digital blackface,” these new filters felt to many like a strange escalation of the racial insensitivity that’s already plaguing face-swapping and transforming apps.
After initially defending the filters, FaceApp chief executive Yaroslav Goncharov said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post late on Wednesday afternoon that the company would remove them in the “next few hours.”
Everyone loves FaceApp, the phone app that adds smiles and wrinkles to your friends' faces!
We regret to inform you that FaceApp is racist pic.twitter.com/2tRSlcfWdc
— Jennifer Unkle (@jbu3) August 9, 2017
This isn’t the first time FaceApp has introduced, and removed, a filter following accusations of racial insensitivity. FaceApp pulled a “hot” filter in April, after users discovered that the filter was lightening skin. The app didn’t use a diverse enough data set while training the filter to define “hotness,” which essentially meant that the filter tried to make everyone look whiter to make them look more attractive. The company apologized.
FaceApp’s race-changing filters were first discovered by a Mic reporter who, unlike me, had not deleted the app from her phone after its brief surge to popularity earlier this year. FaceApp sent a push alert to its users about the filters on Wednesday morning to promote them.
As face-swapping apps like FaceApp have gotten better at transforming the faces of their users, the debate over what, exactly, they permit has intensified. When Snapchat introduced a Bob Marley filter on April, 20, 2016, a ton of people pushed back and said the filter was (a) racist and (b) specifically disrespectful to Marley’s legacy. (Snapchat said at the time that the filter was developed with the cooperation of Marley’s estate.) And later that year, Snapchat introduced (and pulled) an “anime”-inspired filter that had quite a few similarities to racist caricature drawings of Asians.
In an earlier statement to The Washington Post, Goncharov defended the new filters. “The ethnicity change filters have been designed to be equal in all aspects,” he said in an email. “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.”
We asked Goncharov if he had a response to those who said the simple existence of the filters, and not the specific way FaceApp executed them, were the issue. He responded with his announcement that the filters would be pulled from the app.
[This post has been updated to note that FaceApp will remove the filters]