Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist, noticed last week that the TikTok hashtag #intersex was not working. They couldn’t click the tag on one of their own posts, and searching for intersex resulted in a “null” page. Pagonis had noticed the tag disappearing for the second time, and they were concerned that TikTok had banned it just as they were about to begin a series of celebratory videos called Intersex Joy.
Pagonis usually feels safe on TikTok because the platform’s users are generally open to discussing intersex issues. Pagonis sees TikTok and other platforms as places where intersex people can “connect with each other and also advocate for ourselves and each other, and then other people can learn about intersex,” after growing up with secrecy, lies, and shame about being intersex.
However, when the most convenient way to discover intersex content on TikTok vanishes, that erasure follows the historical mistreatment of intersex people. “My community is erased with a scalpel, words, and linguistics,” Pagonis says, “but this time they’re literally erasing the word.”
TikTok stated that in both of the cases Pagonis observed, the tag was accidentally removed and then restored. However, because there was no public statement about the unintentional removal, Pagonis and others were left to speculate about whether it was censored on purpose.
TikTok users are irritated by the ambiguity surrounding content removal and moderation. TikTok has community guidelines, but there is no public list of specific words and phrases that are prohibited, and it is unclear how much moderation is done algorithmically versus by humans. TikTok has previously been accused of suppressing Black creators and limiting the reach of posts by LGBTQ people, disabled people, and people deemed “ugly” or poor.
People employ a variety of strategies to avoid TikTok’s muddled moderation. Some lesbians on the app jokingly refer to themselves as “le dolla bean,” based on the “le$bian” spelling that they use to avoid having their videos removed. “It became this whole joke,” says Mar Hicks, a technology historian, “because things with the word lesbian in them were either flagged for deletion or causing the users’ accounts to get in trouble.”
TikTok creators believe they must be overly cautious about what they post “because the rules change at any given moment, there is no transparency,” according to Hicks. The intentional or unintentional disappearance of tags has “incredibly problematic and negative effects on communities that are already marginalized and erased.”
Queer and people of color have discovered that the guidelines are enforced “wildly differently,” according to Hicks, which means that their content is suppressed or removed for alleged violations, but they receive no response when they report abuse from other users. “Not only does it limit their ability to speak and be seen on the app, but it also allows them to be attacked and have hate speech directed at them.”
Other platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have attributed the restriction of specific accounts or content to technical bugs, moderation errors, or algorithmic issues. According to Hicks, TikTok’s lack of transparency is a serious issue, “and the same goes for any platform that is not being transparent about its standards, moderation tactics, and the extent to which it is automated.”
“I thought this was my happy place,” says Pagonis, whose fondness for TikTok has been shaken by the disappearance of the intersex tag on multiple occasions. They still want to share intersex-related videos. They are, however, dissatisfied with the lack of clarity and wish the platform would be more intentional about elevating marginalized voices.