Does TikTok have a racial bias?

theGrio explainer series 'Cleared Up' consults AI expert Dr. Ayanna Howard for answers about social media apps such as TikTok

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Recently, the popular social media app TikTok has been under fire following a Black creator strike in protest of their habitually stolen and uncredited content, leaving us to wonder: Is TikTok really racist?

In our explainer series, Cleared Up host Tatianna Mott and roboticist and Dean of OSU’S College of Engineering Dr. Ayanna Howard break down how and why social media platforms have biases built into their algorithms.

The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on August 27, 2020 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“When we design algorithms,” explains Dr. Howard, “we design artificial intelligence that uses data from people. That means that if we have bias — and we have aspects of historical biases, as we know in our data sets– when this data is then used to train AI [Artificial Intelligence] to then think and make decisions, then those decisions can also be dictated as discriminatory.”

For those unfamiliar with the app, TikTok may have seemed to appear overnight in 2019, but TikTok is actually the child of popular Chinese-based lip-syncing app and ByteDance, previously best known for its AI-driven news collection platform Toutiao which had its own share of algorithm-based controversy

“Until we can not only fix and ensure that the coders, the human coders, are diverse and the algorithm developers are diverse,” urges Dr. Howard, “we are going to continue seeing these [biases].”

In this photo illustration, the Tik Tok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone on November 01, 2019 in San Anselmo, California. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The impact felt by this June’s strike demonstrated the reach that Black creators have on the app, but what about Black consumers of the content? According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, in 2021, 30% of Black adults reported using TikTok, while only 18% of white adults admitted frequenting the app. Black Americans also reported using other social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat at a significantly higher rate as well. 

These social media apps can often provide entertainment, information, career opportunities, and community. But what do we do when the downsides of using these platforms begin to outweigh the benefits? Watch Episode 3 of Cleared Up now to find out.

Special thanks to Dr. Howard.

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