As Black creators gain sudden exposure on TikTok and Instagram, social media platforms begin to acknowledge inherent biases

Black content creators call on followers and social media platforms to acknowledge systematic racism. (Photo: Instagram/heybriajones)
Black content creators call on followers and social media platforms to acknowledge systematic racism. (Photo: Instagram/heybriajones/areed_1998)

The social media landscape has been transformed amid conversations regarding racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. While people from all backgrounds are participating in these discussions and using their platforms to provide information and resources for their followers, it’s Black content creators in particular who have seen a spike in their engagement and follower count on sites like Instagram and TikTok. And with social networks actively giving a boost to these creators’ posts, some feel this is the first time that they’re being both seen and heard by those who ordinarily wouldn’t follow them.

“My platform has blown up. I just hit 30,000 [31,700 as of publishing time] on Instagram, and last week I had, like, 24,000 [followers before]. And TikTok, I just hit 208,000,” Bria Jones, a 26-year-old fashion and lifestyle content creator, tells Yahoo Life. “It has been really pivotal for me, period. I didn’t know that people listened to me like they do.”

Since turning her social media presence into a business back in 2018, the Texas native has focused on creating a space for all lovers of fashion on Instagram and TikTok. During this time, however, she felt a need to be more authentic with her audience about her experience as a Black woman and sought to use her voice to communicate with non-Black followers who want to become allies. With the unprecedented support for Black creators put forward by the #BlackoutTuesday initiative — a day where people across multiple social networking platforms were encouraged to mute their own content to bring attention and awareness to Black creators, influencers and educators — Jones felt confident enough to break out of her comfort zone.

“I’ve had these conversations my entire life, but it wasn’t until now, this boiling point for everyone, that I actually have been so vocal about it,” she explains. “I never really wanted to start the conversation because it was always intimidating. I’ve always been, like, the only Black girl in the room or the classroom, so you can imagine trying to have that conversation with people that all think the same and have never had these experiences.”

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Those rooms where Jones has been in the minority mirror the online spaces where she again has felt overshadowed by white creators with larger followings and bigger opportunities. “As a society, we’re so used to seeing white faces in everything and not used to seeing just as many Black faces.” This correlates with the increase in engagement that various Black creators experienced on June 2, the day deemed #BlackoutTuesday, when white creators put their content on pause.

Kira West, a creator focused on “making wellness inclusive,” found that the universal call to action primed people on Instagram to seek out new perspectives and faces on their feeds.

“The muting allowed for there to be content shared by people of color, and there aren’t that many in wellness,” West says, making sense of her notable increase in followers interested in new fitness content. “I think people were more apt maybe to receive my perspective. But I also think up until more recently, I wasn’t really having the conversation as much.”

West says her niche of fitness and wellness as a tool has enabled her to obtain a larger audience while so many people are making specific efforts to diversify their feeds. She specifically points to her collaboration with Lindsey Harrod, a white fitness instructor and influencer who paused her own Instagram Live workouts to focus on discussions and workouts alongside Black women who operate in the same space. This approach, West explains, seems most effective in attracting engaged followers.

“I don’t think people are trying to follow Black people just for being Black,” she says. “I think they’re interested in the content and they just might not have discovered you before.”

Similar collaborations have helped amplify Black creators’ content, exposing them to new audiences. According to a June 15 announcement from Instagram, the company is now dedicated to being more proactive in connecting users with more diverse feeds by examining its distribution methods and updating its algorithms to “keep bias out of these decisions.” Instagram will also review its verification process, which validates influencers’ accounts with a check-mark badge, “to ensure it’s as inclusive as possible.”

“We’ll review how content is filtered on Explore and Hashtag pages to understand where there may be vulnerability to bias. On top of that, we need to be clearer about how decisions are made when it comes to how people’s posts get distributed,” the statement reads. “We’re looking into our current verification criteria and will make changes to ensure it’s as inclusive as possible. Verification is an area we constantly get questions on — what the guidelines are, and whether or not the criteria is favoring some groups more than others.”

These efforts, along with others, which include Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri’s announcement on Friday of a $100 million investment in Black-owned businesses and creators, aim to foster stronger partnerships between Black creators and the platform, which will lead to further support and exposure.

On TikTok, however, Jones points out that content is discovered and consumed in a very different way — which means that supporting Black content creators looks different as well. Atiya Mansfield, a 21-year-old student who joined TikTok in early 2018, tells Yahoo Life that content on the app is served to consumers primarily via recommendations on the platform’s “For You” page. Mansfield asserts that for a while, hers was whitewashed.

“I noticed everybody that was on my For You page were the people that the app deemed most popular,” she explains. “There wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me.”

She says that she continued to employ the app because it was easy and fun to use. But even when she decided to put more effort toward making quality content, “I never really got anywhere.”

“‘Is my content bad? Am I doing something wrong?’” she recalls asking herself. “And then the videos that come up on my For You page, someone sitting and smiling at the camera, the only difference is how we look.”

Mansfield points to the ongoing issues that Black creators have faced to receive credit for their original video ideas and choreography, which often end up trending only after being appropriated by and ultimately credited to white users whose accounts have more views. This problem came into focus in February, when the app’s popular “Renegade” dance was traced back to Jalaiah Harmon — a young Black creator whom most people hadn’t heard of or seen before. “The reason why the entirety of the app didn’t know that that dance was created by a Black female teenager was because her videos weren’t being circulated,” Mansfield says. “And that’s when it started to really get to me.”

Mansfield says that she was stuck at 9,000 followers on TikTok “for months,” which is unusual for an app that’s known for greater exposure and faster growth than competitors like Instagram. After posting a video on May 19 — a day when TikTok creators participated in a social media blackout — of a rap that she wrote to address the lack of diversity on her feed, her page suddenly grew. As of this weekend, the Minneapolis native was approaching 50,000 followers.

“The blackout day was so incredible because it kind of forced the app to switch how it was promoting things because there were so many people that came together, not just the Black creators on TikTok, but everybody who was a part of the movement came together and was like, ‘You know what, we’re gonna use the algorithm against itself to see how that can change.’ And it did change. ... My For You page is the most diverse it’s ever been, and it doesn’t seem out of place, it doesn’t seem wrong. It seems more normal than it was before the algorithm switched.”

Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community for TikTok U.S., tells Yahoo Life that the content being served on users’ For You pages is a reflection of what a particular user is interested in. “It takes account of the user’s preferences on videos that they follow, videos that they engage with and like and comment and enjoy watching. That helps serve the most relevant content that resonates with them.”

He also credits the noticeable change that people are seeing on that page with the nation’s focus on racial injustice. “Given the current climate right now, Black Lives Matter is top of mind for a lot of people, and that’s what people are watching and engaging with and people that they’re following, so you start to see a lot more of that content in the feed,” he explains.

Still, it isn’t lost on most creators that such a drastic change in the faces and perspectives served to users isn’t just a coincidence or a result of community action. Instead, Alexis Williams, a computer science student and TikTok creator, says that it’s a result of the platform addressing algorithmic bias.

“Written code carries the same belief system as the people writing it. A lot of people feel as though technology is the most unbiased level of logic we can reach, but this isn’t true. Say a white person is building a networking platform, the way they measure success and social mobility will have a white lens as opposed to one inclusive of other racial identities. Thus it’s inherently harder for BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] to attain success because they don’t fit the mold of what white engineers have previously built,” Williams explains to Yahoo Life. “Shadowbanning is a great example of the inherent bias on TikTok. Shadowbanning is when a platform will prevent your content from being seen by others due to flags your videos raise. These flags can be a plethora of things that break community guidelines, but I also believe TikTok has admitted to shadowbanning content from Black creators, LGBTQ+ creators and more.”

In a statement on June 1, TikTok even acknowledged and apologized for what it called a “technical glitch” that blocked videos uploaded with the tags #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd from appearing on people’s feeds on the May 19 blackout. “This was a display issue only that widely affected hashtags at large,” the statement read. “Nevertheless, we understand that many assumed this bug to be an intentional act to suppress the experiences and invalidate the emotions felt by the Black community. And we know we have work to do to regain and repair that trust.”

On June 18, the company again specifically addressed the bias built into its algorithm with a blog explaining how the For You page functions and how TikTok is actively working to fix it. “One of the inherent challenges with recommendation engines is that they can inadvertently limit your experience — what is sometimes referred to as a ‘filter bubble,’” the statement read. “By optimizing for personalization and relevance, there is a risk of presenting an increasingly homogeneous stream of videos. This is a concern we take seriously as we maintain our recommendation system.” It further pledged to work on “interrupting repetitive patterns” and “diversifying recommendations.”

Chikumbu explains that the app’s Discover page is where this proactive action will primarily be seen with curated banners such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Music Month” that direct users to relevant content. It will also display a list of trending hashtags and topics that TikTok chooses to highlight as a reflection of larger cultural conversations.

Instagram similarly addressed its own algorithmic bias in Mosseri’s announcement. “Some technologies risk repeating the patterns developed by our biased societies. While we do a lot of work to help prevent subconscious bias in our products, we need to take a harder look at the underlying systems we’ve built, and where we need to do more to keep bias out of these decisions,” it read.

Other platforms, namely YouTube and Facebook, have yet to mention this underlying issue, which TikTok creator Williams says isn’t a surprise because it opens the floodgates to a larger issue. “It’s still a bit of an underground topic. It also unveils possible problems within AI, machine learning and overall privacy that I’m not sure many companies are comfortable or prepared to deal with,” she explains. “If a company admits that [its] programs are biased, they have to be ready for backlash. If they are truly committed to change and inclusivity, they will undergo an upheaval of their current system.”

In the process of bettering their systems, some platforms have reached out to their Black communities to open up a dialogue in hopes of administering positive change. Jones explains that she’s been in touch with representatives at TikTok after attending its first Black Creators Summit in February and is hopeful about the action that they’ve promised to take. When YouTube sent a message to its own outreach list of Black creators, however, it received a negative response.

Akilah Hughes, writer, comedian and YouTuber, didn’t respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. However, she’s made multiple claims about YouTube’s overwhelming inaction when it comes to racist and abusive content on its platform. On the flip side, a host of creators most recently spoke out about YouTube’s removal of any and all videos made in an effort to fundraise for organizations fighting racial injustice. On Friday, it was announced that four Black female YouTube creators filed a class action lawsuit against the platform’s parent company, Google, alleging that its algorithm discriminates against Black creators.

YouTube tells Yahoo Life that it ensures all policies are enforced in a consistent matter and the platform’s automated systems aren’t made to identify the race, ethnicity or sexual orientation of creators or viewers. Any further action in regard to YouTube’s fight against racial injustice was announced in a blog by CEO Susan Wojcicki on June 11, including a multiyear, $100 million fund dedicated to amplifying and developing the voices of Black creators and artists and their stories.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced a monetary investment in Black communities and creators on Thursday, in addition to efforts being made to increase diversity and inclusion within the company’s workforce.

This followed chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post on June 1 in which he also addressed the company’s commitment to put money toward groups working on racial justice. “Not everything can be fixed by throwing money at it,” one person commented on Zuckerberg’s post. Another wrote, “You need to commit to the ending of disinformation campaigns, but $10 million is a good start.”

Twitter also made a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, although Williams explains that the way that the platform works is vastly different from an app like TikTok and therefore doesn’t have the same biases at play. “TikTok is very different in the way that the content I consume would never be the exact same as a friend with different taste or views, for example. Alternatively, Twitter feels more like fast news that everyone consumes somewhat similarly, which is very helpful for the fast-moving pace of the [Black Lives Matter] movement,” she says.

Still, Williams explains that any and all biases must be examined in order to move toward permanent and effective change. “All social media platforms need to commit to constant and continuous efforts to make their networks [fairer],” she says. “These systems that carry out and perform implicit bias weren’t built in a day, and it’s going to take a while to detangle ourselves and our cultural devices from them.”

In the meantime, creators like Jones, West and Mansfield will continue to come up with content that they love and integrate their authentic experiences into it, with the hope that platforms and people who use them will continue to consume it.

“This allowed me to see my potential in how I can impact the world through more ways than just fashion,” Jones says. “I’ve never felt this kind of support before.”

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