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HomeTechWhat is "algo speech"? Inside the latest version of linguistic loophole

What is “algo speech”? Inside the latest version of linguistic loophole


There’s a linguistic arms race raging online — and it’s not clear who’s winning.

On one side are social networks like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. These sites have gotten better at identifying and removing language and content that conflicts with them community standards.

Social media users are on the other side, and they’ve come up with coded terminology designed to evade algorithmic detection. These expressions are collectively referred to as “algo speech.”

New terms like this are just the latest development in the history of language concealment. Usually such codes are used by small groups. However, given the reach of social media, algospeak has the potential to influence everyday language use more broadly.

An online deadlock

Due to the huge amount of content posted, social media platforms using algorithms to automatically flag and remove problematic material. The aim is to combat the spread of disinformation and to block content deemed offensive or inappropriate.

Yet many people have legitimate reasons for wanting to discuss sensitive topics online.

For example, victims of sexual assault may find it therapeutic to discuss their experiences with others. And those struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide can benefit from online communities that offer support. But algorithms can identify and remove such content as a violation of a site’s terms of service.

But those who repeatedly violate a site’s policies may find their posts have been ranked down or made less visible — a process called ban shade. And repeated violations can lead to a temporary or permanent suspension.

To get past content filters, social media users make use of coded language instead of the forbidden terms.

For example, references to sex can be replaced with an innocent word like “mascara.” “not alivehas become an agreed-upon way of referring to death or suicide. “accountant” takes the place of sex worker. “Cornstands for porn. “Leg bootyis LGBTQ.

A history of hidden language

While bypassing content filters is a relatively new phenomenon, using coded terms to hide someone’s intent is not.

For example, the 19th century Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin used ‘Aesopian’ or allegorical language. He and others used it to get around censorship in Tsarist Russia. For example, the banned term “revolution” would be replaced with a phrase like “the big job.”

Many subcultures have developed their own private codes that are only truly understood by members of the in-group. These are referred to by different names, such as argot, cant, or jargon.

Polari was a private language used by gay men in early 20th century Britain, at a time when public sentiment against homosexuality was running high. “Rough trade”, for example, referred to a working-class sex partner.

Rhyming slang has also been used to obscure one’s meaning to outsiders. For example, a term like telephone could be replaced with a rhyming equivalent, such as “dog and bone,” and then shortened to “dog.” This way, a member of a gang can publicly request that another member call them, even in the presence of the police.

Cockney rhyming slangwhich originated in 19th century London is perhaps the most famous example, although there are others.

Readspeak developed in the 1980s, when intrepid Internet pioneers ventured online to use bulletin board systems. Some of the workarounds they came up with to bypass moderation are still used on sites like TikTok.

This form of linguistic subterfuge usually uses numbers and symbols as substitutes for letters. “3” resembles a capital E backwards, “1” resembles a lowercase l, “$” can take the place of the letter s, and so on. The term “leet” itself is often written as “1337.”

While mostly used when writing about sex, algospeak has proven useful in other contexts as well. For example, it was used last year in Iran by those protesting the government’s crackdown on dissent. Creative spelling errors such as “Ir@n” were used to circumvent censorship.

Concealment breeds miscommunication

About ten years ago when emoji became a popular way to increase text messages, a new way to bypass content moderation was born.

As I describe in my recently published book on miscommunicationfruits and vegetables vaguely resembling parts of the human anatomy were used to circumvent policies prohibiting sexual content.

As a result, the simple eggplant and peach emoji took the plunge clearly new meanings in the online world. And in 2019, both Facebook and Instagram took steps block its use as sexual stand-ins.

The various social media platforms appear to be engaged in an escalating feud with their users. The sites may block certain terms, but this leads to new algospeak equivalents popping up to take their place.

Different sites have different rules that prohibit different terms, and what’s considered acceptable and what’s not is constantly changing.

Keeping up can be a challenge.

In January, actress Julia Fox made an appearance insensitive observation regarding a post mentioning “mascara” on TikTok.

Fox apparently didn’t know the term was being used as a substitute for sexual assault. Fox was called out for her apparently crass remark, and a backlash forced her apologize.

As this linguistic tug-of-war continues, such misunderstandings seems likely to be more common. And in any case, some algospeak terms will inevitably cross over into vocabulary used offline.

After all, coded language survives because it is useful. For example, such terms can function as dog whistles to taunt his political opponents.

Let’s go Brandon, anyone?

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

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