Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist, noticed last week that the #intersex hashtag wasn’t working on TikTok. They couldn’t click the tag on one of their own posts and trying to search for intersex pulled up a “null” page. This was the second time Pagonis noticed the tag disappearing, and they worried that TikTok had banned it just as they were about to start a series of celebratory videos called Intersex Joy.
Pagonis usually feels safe on TikTok because people on the platform are generally receptive to intersex topics. After growing up with secrecy, lies, and shame around being intersex, Pagonis sees TikTok and other platforms as spaces where intersex people “can connect with each other and also advocate for ourselves and each other, and then other people can learn about intersex.”
But when the easiest way to discover intersex content on TikTok disappears, that erasure follows the historical mistreatment of intersex people. “My community is erased with a scalpel, and with words and linguistics,” says Pagonis, “but this time they’re literally erasing the word.”
TikTok tells The Verge that in both of the instances Pagonis noticed, the tag had been removed by mistake and was subsequently restored. But because there was no public statement about the accidental removal, Pagonis and others were left to speculate about whether it was being intentionally censored.
The muddiness around content removal and moderation on TikTok is an ongoing frustration for the app’s users. TikTok has community guidelines, but there’s no public list of specific words and phrases that are banned, and it’s not clear how much moderation is done algorithmically versus by actual people. Previously, TikTok has limited the reach of posts by LGBTQ people, disabled people, and people who were deemed “ugly” or poor, and has been accused of suppressing Black creators.
People use different tactics to skirt TikTok’s jumbled moderation. Some lesbians on the app jokingly refer to themselves as “le dolla bean” based on the “le$bian’’ spelling that’s used to avoid their videos being removed. “It became this whole joke,” says Mar Hicks, a historian of technology, “because things that have the word lesbian in them were either getting flagged for deletion or causing the users’ accounts to get in trouble.”
Creators on TikTok feel that they have to be overly cautious about what they post, “because the rules change at any given moment, there’s no transparency,” Hicks says. The sudden disappearance of tags, intentional or not, has “incredibly problematic effects and negative effects on communities that are already marginalized and erased.”
Queer people and people of color have found the guidelines are enforced “wildly differently” says Hicks, meaning their content will be suppressed or removed for supposed violations, but they get no response when they report abuse from other users. “Not only is it hurting their ability to speak and be seen on the app, but it’s also allowing them to get attacked and have hate speech thrown their way.”
Other platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have chalked up the restriction of certain accounts or content to technical bugs, moderation errors, or problems with their algorithms. Hicks says the lack of transparency from TikTok is a serious problem, “and the same goes for any platform that is not being transparent about its standards, and its moderation tactics, and the extent of how automatic it is.”
“I thought this was my happy place,” says Pagonis, whose fondness for TikTok has been shaken now that the intersex tag has vanished more than once. They still want to share videos about intersex experiences. But they’re frustrated at the lack of clarity, and wish the platform would be more intentional about uplifting marginalized voices.