TikTok users adopting codewords to get around the platform’s censorship

TikTok users are using codewords like 'mascara' to discuss sensitive topics.

TikTok users are using codewords like 'mascara' to discuss sensitive topics. Photo: TikTok/Getty

These past couple of months on TikTok, no one seems to be able to stop talking about mascara.

People are saying mascara makes them feel better about themselves, and whether they trust their mascara – or could ever trust another mascara product again.

One creator, for example, talked about how “perfect” their mascara was for their lashes.

“My mascara looks so pretty and makes me feel happy whenever I use it. I really hope my mascara doesn’t run out cause I’ll never be able to find a mascara like this one.”

Another doubted if they could ever trust another mascara.

“I found the best mascara ever, but it changed and made my lashes completely fall apart,” one user captioned their video.

“Now I don’t know if I’ll ever trust any other mascara.”

As you might have gathered, these creators aren’t really talking about beauty products.

Rather, they’re talking about intimacy and their romantic relationships, using ‘mascara’ as a codeword to get around TikTok’s strict content guidelines.

In recent months, videos made using the hashtag #mascaratrend have amassed more than 164.8 million views, with people using TikTok as a platform to speak candidly about their personal experiences.

@kayleeavemealone it’s not about mascara 🙂 #fyp #fypシ #mascara #mascaratrend ♬ constellations by duster – ‍

Speaking in code

If you have been on TikTok at all in the past three years, you might have noticed that the vast majority of the platform is speaking in code.

In the world of TikTok, sex workers are known as ‘spicy accountants’ and sex is known only as ‘s3ggs’.

Pornography is referred to as ‘p word’, and the LGBTQI+ community has been dubbed ‘leg booty’.

This kind of language has been coined as ‘algospeak’ by Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz, which she defines as language that won’t offend a social media platform’s algorithm.

It might sound ridiculous and clunky in practice, yes, but this self-censorship is necessary to avoid having users’ content thwarted in TikTok’s algorithm.

In 2020, the Chinese-owned app admitted that it had restricted several LGBTQI+-related terms, including ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’.

This was originally unearthed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who claimed in a report that TikTok had ‘shadow banned’ the hashtags in various languages, including Russian, Estonian, Bosnian and Arabic.

Shadow banning essentially means that videos are suppressed in the app’s algorithm, and won’t be suggested to as many users as a typical video.

“TikTok users posting videos with these hashtags are given the impression their posts are just as searchable as posts by other users, but in fact they aren’t,” the report said.

“In practice, most of these hashtags are categorised in TikTok’s code in the same way that terrorist groups, illicit substances, and swear words are treated on the platform.”

TikTok also admitted to limiting viewership of LGBTQI+ images in order to comply with local laws.

It also said it restricted LGBTQI+ content, as well as posts from disabled or plus-sized creators, in a bid to “reduce bullying”.

TikTok’s then-director of public policy in Europe, the Middle East and Africa Theo Bertram conceded it was a “terrible idea” and the policy had since been changed.

Not just mascara

Essentially, these codewords are a way for people to openly talk about these topics, without the fear of suppression.

And this shadow banning isn’t limited only to topics with sexual themes.

Words like ‘suicide’ and ‘dead’ are also a no-go, with users instead referring to death as ‘un-aliving’.

At the start of the pandemic, creators claimed that their content gained way fewer views and engagement if they mentioned words including ‘pandemic’, ‘COVID’ and ‘coronavirus’.

Many creatively used ‘Backstreet Boys reunion tour’ when referring to the pandemic, others opting for ‘panini’ or ‘panda express’.

This self-censorship has expanded to other social media platforms, with creators adopting the same practices on YouTube, Twitch and Instagram.

‘Showing my age’

Although these codewords are allowing creators to open without the fear of censorship, it has been causing some confusion.

And with TikTok trends emerging and catching on at such a speed, it can be hard to keep your pulse on what’s happening – if you’re not constantly glued to your phone.

Model and actor Julia Fox faced backlash in January for a faux pas when she misinterpreted one user’s application of the word ‘mascara’.

TikTok user Conor Whipple had posted a video sharing his story about ‘mascara’, which was really about sexual assault.

“I gave this girl mascara and it must have been so good that she decided that her and her friend should both try it without my consent,” Whipple shared.

@big_whip13 Idk if y’all will get it but #saawareness #foryoupage #GenshinImpact34 #goofy #FastTwitchContest #viral #menspeakup ♬ constellations by duster – ‍

But Fox didn’t catch on to the double meaning, leaving a confused and unintentionally insensitive comment.

“Idk (I don’t know) why but I feel bad for u lol,” Fox wrote.

She later apologised for the misunderstanding, saying she had no idea that the word ‘mascara’ was being used as a codeword.

“I’m really showing my age right now, but I just was not on that side of TikTok,” she said.

“And I really thought this man was crying about mascara. The end, OK? I’m sorry.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can call the national domestic, family and sexual violence counselling, information and support service at 1800 737 732, or Lifeline at 13 11 14

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