Make one misguided and culturally insensitive mistake, and maybe your users can chalk it up to a judgement error and offer you a second chance. Make the same mistake again, as the photo editing app FaceApp has just done, and you probably won't be granted the same reprieve.
Today, the app released a series of new "ethnicity filters" — "Indian," "Black," "Caucasian," and "Asian" — that alter someone's race in a photo. The "Black" filter is clearly blackface; the "Indian" filter brownface; and the "Asian" filter yellowface. Someone can only try one of the filters by opting in to the app's collage mode, meaning that they try three filters at a time. Outraged users were quick to take to Twitter.
This is not the first time FaceApp has faced anger from its users. Earlier this year, users decried the effects of the "hot" filter, which lightened someone's skin tone. The filter was swiftly deleted, and FaceApp's CEO, Yaroslav Goncharov apologized for what he told The Guardian was an "underlying neural network" failure. But there seems to be no artificial intelligence mistake at the root of the ethnicity filters — the creation of these filters was an intentional decision, one that's not only insensitive, but ignorant of the ugly racist history of such practices.
In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Goncharov said, "They don’t have any positive or negative connotations associated with them." Goncharov supported his claim that the filters were "designed to be equal in all aspects" by saying they are all represented by the same icon in the app, a blue outline of a globe. Goncharov's comments show a failure to understand why the new filters are upsetting to many people.
Photo editing apps have been around long enough, and faced enough Twitter rebuke, to know adding effects that change someone's skin color is not a good idea. Despite Gonchrov's comments earlier in the day, the filters were removed after he admitted to HuffPost that the filters are "controversial."
Refinery29 has reached out to FaceApp for comment regarding the removal of the filters.