Searches for the word “dog” on Instagram stories show an emoji for a takeaway box associated with Chinese American food, angering people who are concerned that the app reinforces racist stereotypes.
An Instagram employee pointed out the problem over the weekend, according to a post on an internal Facebook messaging forum, while users of the popular photo-sharing app have been complaining about the problem since 2019. Instagram is owned and operated by Facebook.
“How do we put emojis in this and can we eliminate this so that this does not perpetuate Asian racial stereotypes?” wrote the employee, who works as an integrity program manager for Instagram products. “I tried this with 3 of my family members and it showed up for them.”
In tests on Apple devices, BuzzFeed News was shown the Chinese American food container in search of “dog” while trying to place an emoji or GIF on top of a story, ephemeral image or video that is attached to a profile for 24 hours period. The box to take was one of seven possible emoji search results for the word, alongside real dog emoji, paw prints, and a hot dog.
The results could not be replicated on Android devices with Instagram. History features on Twitter, Snapchat, and the Facebook app did not have searchable emojis or did not show racist results.
A spokesman for Facebook told BuzzFeed News that the company is investigating the problem.
“We have removed the emoji from appearing in this search and we are investigating what led to this so we can take measures to prevent it from happening again,” a Facebook spokesman said.
Following the publication of the story, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, he said on Twitter that emoji box takeout was associated with the term “doggy bag,” which made it appear when looking for “dog”.
“Then we removed that search term and apologized for being misinterpreted, and to all of us who were offended,” he said.
The problem has existed since at least 2019. In October of that year, one person tweeted they were looking for “cute little dog gifs on Instagram” but they came up in the takeout box.
“Why am I looking for the dog on @instagram and Chinese food is coming ???” another woman tweeted at the beginning of 2020.
Jennifer 8 Lee, vice president of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which is helping new emojis get approval, said the error was due to Instagram. While emojis are linked to certain keywords, there is no unicode basis, the standard for consistent text management across devices, to associate “dog” with the emoji that people care about.
“‘Dog’ is not a keyword for ‘takeout box’ in unicode,” said Lee, who also wrote And Chronicles of Fortune Cookies, a book on Chinese American food. “It had to be done on that platform level and someone shot it.”
Lee said the connection between the dog and the emoji through the takeaway container – that’s actually it an American invention – echoes the racist caricatures that were engaged when Chinese workers came to the United States in the 1800s. When immigrants came to build American railroads, food became a differentiator in the “we versus them” stories. with Chinese workers portrayed as “strangers on our shores eating dogs, cats and mice.”
Lee added that although some Asian countries have places that serve dog meat, he said white Americans sometimes eat atypical animals as alligators. “I would say that the average Chinese person never eats a dog in their entire life, in the same way that the average American never eats a gator in their lifetime,” he said.
This is far from the first time a Facebook product has been hit with accusations of cultural insensitivity. In 2018, after a deadly earthquake in Indonesia, people in the country who tried to alert friends and family who were safe or offered condolences on the platform were displayed festive balloons after the platform did not realize that the Indonesian word for “survive” also means “celebrate”.
This year the day of Martin Luther King Jr., Instagram mistakenly posted a coronavirus disinformation label on the stories showing a screenshot of a commemorative tweet from King Bernice King’s daughter that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
“Our systems have erroneously marked the screenshots of this Tweet as vaccine misinformation,” an Instagram spokesman said. he said then. “We have now removed the incorrect label on these posts.”
February 8, 2021, at 9:49 PM
This story was updated with a comment from Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram.