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When doing a search for the word “dog” on Instagram, an emoji for a take-out box associated with Chinese-American food will be displayed. This annoys people who are concerned that the app is reinforcing racist stereotypes.
An Instagram employee noticed the problem over the weekend, according to a post on an internal Facebook 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 are the emojis recommended here and can we remove them so that Asian racial stereotypes don’t persist?” wrote the employee who works as a program manager for product integrity at Instagram. “I’ve tested this on 3 of my family members and it shows up for them.”
In tests on Apple devices, BuzzFeed News was shown the Sino-American food container searching for “dog” while attempting to place an emoji or GIF over a story, ephemeral image or video that was posted to a profile for 24 hours period is appended. The takeout box was one of seven possible emoji search results for the word, along with real dog emojis, paw prints, and a hot dog.
The results could not be replicated on Android devices with Instagram. Story functions on Twitter, Snapchat, and the Facebook app didn’t have any searchable emojis or showed racist results.
A representative from Facebook told BuzzFeed News that the company is investigating the problem.
“We removed the emoji from this search and are investigating what led to it so we can take steps to prevent it from occurring again,” said a Facebook spokesman.
After the story was published, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said on Twitter that the take-away emoji was associated with the term “dog pouch,” which resulted in him appearing on searches for “dog.”
“We have since removed this search term and we apologize for its misinterpretation and to everyone we have offended,” he said.
The problem had existed since at least 2019. In October of that year, a person tweeted that they were looking for “cute little dog gifs” on Instagram but came across the take-out box.
“Why did I look for dog on @instagram and Chinese food comes up ???” Another woman tweeted in early 2020.
Jennifer 8 Lee, a vice chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee who helps new emojis get approval, said the bug was Instagram’s fault. While emojis are associated with specific keywords, Unicode, the standard for consistently handling text across devices, has no basis for associating “dog” with the emoji that people are concerned about.
“‘Dog’ is not a keyword for ‘Takeout Box’ in Unicode,” said Lee, who also wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book on Americanized Chinese food. “It has to happen at this platform level and someone screwed it up.”
Lee said the dog-emoji connection for the take-out container – an American invention – mirrored racist caricatures that prevailed when Chinese workers came to the US in the 19th century. When immigrants came to build American railways, food became a differentiator in the “Us Against You,” which portrayed Chinese workers as “strangers on our shores eating dogs, cats and rats.”
Lee added that while some Asian countries have places that serve dog meat, she found that white Americans sometimes eat atypical animals like alligators too. “I would say the average Chinese person never eats dogs in their entire life, just as the average American does not eat an alligator in their lifetime,” she said.
This is far from the first time a Facebook product has been hit by allegations of cultural insensitivity. Following a deadly earthquake in Indonesia in 2018, festive balloons were shown to people in the country trying to alert friends and family that they were safe or express condolences on the platform after the platform failed to understand the Indonesian word for “survive” also means “celebrate”.
That year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Instagram mistakenly placed a coronavirus misinformation label on stories that showed a screenshot of a commemorative tweet by King’s daughter Bernice King that was unrelated to the pandemic.
“Our systems incorrectly flagged screenshots of this tweet as vaccine misinformation,” said an Instagram spokesman at the time. “We have now removed the wrong label on these posts.”
February 8, 2021, 9:49 p.m.
This story has been updated with a comment from Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram.