Algospeak, a language to deceive algorithms – Geeko

Internet users are inventing new words to circumvent content moderation algorithms in a language dubbed “algospeak”.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a wave of new people to online virtual communication platforms. As more and more people have begun to express themselves online, algorithmic content moderation systems have had an unprecedented impact on the words users choose. And especially on TikTok.

Back to the birth of a new form of language on the Web.

Algospeak as a method of circumventing moderation systems

Algospeak refers to the code words or turns of phrase that users have adopted to create a new lexicon. The goal? Prevent content moderation systems from downgrading or deleting their posts. Simply put, it represents the action of replacing phrases favored by social media algorithms with seemingly innocuous phrases.

Namely, on social media platforms, posts can be automatically removed if they contain content that is toxic or deemed inappropriate by moderation rules. To circumvent these rules, people therefore replace the prohibited words with others that the algorithms do not (yet) recognize.

The example of TikTok

TikTok has been a springboard for the phenomenon. And this because on this platform, the main means of distributing content is a page called “For You”. The content of the latter being selected by an artificial intelligence, this led users to adapt their videos according to the algorithm. Compliance with content moderation rules has thus become more crucial than ever.

In short, for content creators, it is essential to be spotted by the algorithm of this page to explode its popularity rating. Little anecdote, according to the washington post, the most famous creators would even keep a Google Doc. This document would serve as a directory of words at risk of being censored by the platform.

The origins of algospeak

Already in the past, groups of people have used language adaptation to avoid punishment or other negative consequences. For example, many people living in repressive regimes have developed code names to discuss taboo topics.

As another illustration, early Internet users used alternate spelling to circumvent word filters in chat rooms and online games. Since then, moderation systems have become much more efficient, as have the techniques to deceive them.

The Voldemorting and the leet speak, the elders of the algospeak

The term “Voldemorting” has been around for several years. This practice refers to the characters in the Harry Potter book series who call Voldemort “the one whose name is not pronounced”. It is a web practice of avoiding the use of a name, brand or keyword and replacing it with another term. Basically, the goal is to deliberately deprive celebrities or websites of attention or clicks by not referring to them by name. Of course, this has SEO implications, and that’s the point.

Another example, the leet speakin which letters are often replaced by numbers or special characters, appeared in the 1980s. This early Internet computer slang is therefore one of the predecessors of Voldemorting and algospeak.

Thus, as algospeak becomes more popular and replacement words are gradually introduced into common language, users find that they have to be ever more creative to escape filters. But it must be understood that these messages in “algospeak” are not always offensive. Sometimes people use these made-up phrases to talk about sensitive topics like mental health or sexuality.

free speech

Using algospeak can help content creators address sensitive topics. And this, without the content moderation system removing or deleting their posts.

For example, in many online videos, it is common to say “SA” rather than “sexual assault”, “unalive” rather than “dead”, “spicy eggplant” rather than “vibrator”, replacing “weed” with “yes”, or even, to use “become non-alive” to confide in his suicidal thoughts. Indeed, some searches like “anorexia” and “suicide” prefer to refer the user to support resources or toll-free numbers, rather than redirecting them to videos about it. Similarly, sex workers, who have long had to deal with censorship from moderation systems, refer to themselves on TikTok as “accountants” and use the corn emoji to replace the word “porn”.

To follow, an example a little more anchored in the news. Recently, when discussing the invasion of Ukraine, people on YouTube and TikTok used the sunflower emoji to refer to the country.

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Algospeak, a language to deceive algorithms – Geeko


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