Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist, noticed last week that the #intersex hashtag was not working on TikTok. Unable to click on the tag on any of their own posts, they tried to search for intersex and returned a “null” page. This was the second time Pagonis noticed the tag disappearing, and they were concerned that TikTok had banned it just as they were about to launch a series of celebratory videos called Intersex Joy.
Pagonis usually feels safe on TikTok because people on the platform are generally receptive to intersex topics. Having grown up with secrecy, lies and shame surrounding being intersex, Pagonis sees TikTok and other platforms as spaces where intersex people “can connect with each other and also advocate for ourselves and each other, and then other people can learn about intersex. ”
But when the easiest way to discover intersex content on TikTok disappears, that removal follows the historical mistreatment of intersex people. “My community has been wiped out with a scalpel and with words and linguistics,” Pagonis says, “but this time they’re literally erasing the word.”
TikTok tells The edge that in both cases, Pagonis noticed that the tag had been accidentally deleted and then restored. But with no public statement about the accidental deletion, Pagonis and others had to speculate as to whether it was intentionally censored.
The muddyness surrounding the removal and moderation of content on TikTok is an ongoing frustration for the app’s users. TikTok has Community Guidance, but there’s no public list of specific words and phrases that are banned, and it’s not clear how much moderation is done algorithmically versus by real people. Previously, TikTok limited the reach of messages by LGBTQ people, disabled people and people who were considered “ugly” or poor and accused of oppressing black creators.
People use various tactics to get around TikTok’s muddled moderation. Some of the lesbians in the app jokingly call themselves “le dolla bean‘ based on the ‘le$bian’ spelling used to prevent their videos from being removed. “It became this whole joke,” says Mar Hicks, a technology historian, “because things with the word lesbian in them were flagged for deletion or caused the user accounts to get into trouble.”
Creators on TikTok feel they should be too careful with what they post, “because the rules change every moment, there’s no transparency,” Hicks says. The sudden disappearance of tags, intentional or not, has “incredibly problematic effects and negative effects on communities that have already been marginalized and erased”.
Queer people and people of color have found that the guidelines are applied “very differently,” Hicks says, meaning their content will be suppressed or removed for alleged violations, but they get no response when they report abuse from other users. “Not only does it impair their ability to speak and be seen on the app, but it also allows them to be attacked and have hate speech in their path.”
Other platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have attributed the restriction of certain accounts or content to technical bugs, moderation errors, or problems with their algorithms. Hicks says TikTok’s lack of transparency is a serious issue, “and the same goes for any platform that isn’t transparent about its standards, its moderation tactics, and how automatic it is.”
“I thought this was my happy place,” says Pagonis, whose fondness for TikTok has been shaken now that the intersex tag has disappeared more than once. They still want to share videos about intersex experiences. But they are frustrated by the lack of clarity and wish the platform would be more intentional to cheer up marginalized voices.