What Internet Outrage Reveals About Race and TikTok’s Algorithm: Code Switch : NPR


West Elm Caleb has gone from local Hinge gamer to dating supervillain, the target of a massive and fair internet investigation. An audience of millions helped uncover and blow up his personal information.

Nicole Xu for NPR


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Nicole Xu for NPR

What Internet Outrage Reveals About Race and TikTok's Algorithm: Code Switch : NPR

West Elm Caleb has gone from local Hinge gamer to dating supervillain, the target of a massive and fair internet investigation. An audience of millions helped uncover and blow up his personal information.

Nicole Xu for NPR

The Super Bowl is over, so we’re officially in Valentine’s Day mode here. We’re going to get into a story that we haven’t stopped thinking about for weeks: West Elm Caleb. Why was he dubbed one of the top internet villains of the year? And what does his saga tell us about race on the internet? Let’s dive into it.

Here’s the backstory: In early January, a woman posted a TikTok about her frustration at being ghosted after dates. In the video, she clarifies that she is in New York and her caption refers to a tall guy named Caleb. It is more or less that.

This essay first appeared in NPR code switch newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one and get recommendations on what to read, watch and listen to.

But that handful of information, catalyzed by TikTok’s powerful recommendation algorithm, turned the video into a beacon for a swath of young, mostly white women on the New York dating scene. In the comments and their own videos, a dozen women shared stories of meeting a big man named Caleb on Hinge, who said he worked at West Elm as a furniture designer.

In front of a growing audience, women who said they were dating or currently dating Caleb pieced together a character built from red flags. The man who told them he had just “deleted Hinge” had apparently actually left their meeting to go on another date, they said. As the story spread, more and more people chimed in, analyzing Caleb’s behavior, trying to find their local equivalents, calling him everything from emotional manipulator to love bomber to the sociopath.

And so, as these things progressed, Caleb went from a local Hinge gamer to a dating supervillain, the target of a massive and fair Internet investigation. An audience of millions helped uncover and blow up his personal information. Several brands posted messages trying to dunk on Caleb and get attention – non-West Elm furniture store, rival dating app, Hellman’s mayo for whatever reason.

It was around this time that he went from trending on TikTok to internet news, with articles breaking out that this punishment didn’t fit the crime. Caleb’s behavior, while certainly sounding dodgy, really didn’t seem outside the realm of normal (given the generally low standards for boys on apps.)

And while it’s good that many called the overshoot a reaction, it also got us thinking about how these cycles of outrage happen, and are often ignored, when people of color are involved. Mass harassment, character attack, and doxxing are all fairly common for people who come across the internet for attention. But this case seemed to be unfolding in a very specific way.

Which begs a few questions: How did Caleb get so much attention in the first place, and what kind of attention was it? While social media companies tend to be tight-lipped about how their algorithms work, TikTok describes part of their recommendation system as “collaborative filtering” – a system that creates “personalized” recommendations by showing you what’s going on. other users like the same things you do too (yeah, that’s the kind of thing that takes a few diagrams to explain.)

Marc Faddoul, an artificial intelligence researcher who has raised concerns about racial bias in TikTok recommendations, told Buzzfeed News that “collaborative filtering can also replicate any bias in people’s behavior. People who tend to liking blonde teenage girls tends to like a lot of other blondes”. teens.”

But the viral zeitgeist isn’t just about the amount of eyeballs on a story. It’s also about the kind of audience attached to those eyeballs. Are the people watching you looking primarily for easy fun? Or is your audience saturated with content creators, who make response videos or work for ad agencies or national news outlets?

On TikTok, there’s a flip side to the white stories that get the most mainstream attention – black users have always had to fight for visibility and credit. Last year, the creators reported that terms like “Black Lives Matter” and “Black people” were apparently being removed by automated moderation. The black dancers and choreographers who consistently set the biggest dance trends on the internet have seen white users skyrocket copying their work — to the point of a content strike, also last year.

Another recent and more disturbing social media phenomenon has also raised questions about the boundary between pre-programmed and live human editorial bias. Gabby Petito’s disappearance last year captured national attention in part because it attracted a huge wave of algorithm-based internet sleuthing. This tragedy and its wide coverage have rekindled the spotlight on the “missing white woman syndrome”, as many have noted that the case stands in stark contrast to the 710 Native people who have gone missing in Wyoming over the past decade, who received relatively few media. Warning.

The more our lives are intertwined and caught up in the algorithms of technology and social media, the more worth trying to understand and unpack how these algorithms work. Who goes viral and why? Who is bullied, who is defended and what are the lasting repercussions? And how does the internet both obscure and exacerbate the racial and gender dynamics that already drive so many of our social interactions?

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