Internet ‘algospeak’ is changing our language in real time, from ‘nip nops’ to ‘le dollar bean’
When the pandemic broke out, people on TikTok and other apps began referring to it as the “Backstreet Boys reunion tour” or calling it the “panini” or “panda express” as platforms down-ranked videos mentioning the pandemic by name in an effort to combat misinformation. When young people began to discuss struggling with mental health, they talked about “becoming unalive” in order to have frank conversations about suicide without algorithmic punishment. Sex workers, who have long been censored by moderation systems, refer to themselves on TikTok as “accountants” and use the corn emoji as a substitute for the word “porn.”
“One, it doesn’t actually work,” she said. “The people using platforms to organize real harm are pretty good at figuring out how to get around these systems. And two, it leads to collateral damage of literal speech.” Attempting to regulate human speech at a scale of billions of people in dozens of different languages and trying to contend with things such as humor, sarcasm, local context and slang can’t be done by simply down-ranking certain words, Greer argues.