Beauty & Filter Bubbles – Work Group 4.1

Our First Blog Post!

By 4g1

It is common for humans to want to change the way they look. While some Europeans struggle to get a tan in order to be viewed as more attractive, the exact opposite tendency takes place in India.  Many women are systematically bleaching their skin by using serums, creams and laser treatments that break down the melanin in their skin. It could be argued that this is the result of having so many celebrities from the Western world reach popularity in Asia: people are simply inspired to change their appearance in order to resemble their idols, and that is true to some extent. However, this obsession with whiter, brighter skin has been alive on the Eastern side of the globe long before colonialism.

The aspiration of being whiter has less to do with wanting to look Caucasian, than it has with having a high status in a culture that has thoroughly enforced paler members of its civilization as superior. The greatest issue about skin whitening is linked to health hazards- whitening creams contain toxic chemicals that may lead to serious complications, and the idea that an individual’s worth is subject to their complexion can be degrading to people’s mental health as well. Regardless of one’s qualification, many of those searching for jobs in India, for instance, lose their chance for being elected if someone perceived as whiter enters the competition, and the same applies for marriages.

While whiteness has been an internalized beauty ideal in the Asian culture, the rise of the skin whitening trend and its commonality developed as online marketing flourished.  Nowadays whitening creams can be ordered online, from more or less certified sellers, because cosmetics in India are not regulated as strictly as drugs (Travasso, 2014). Online stores use trackers to determine their targeted audience, which means that these products are addressed to a community susceptible to the desire of whitening their skin.

“Fair” equals “lovely” in this Indian cream advert.

Are Indian customers receiving advertisements and news articles about the best methods to brighten their skin tone, in the same way as beauty pages on Facebook recommend tanning techniques and products to Dutch people? The goal of this project is to investigate the beauty ads and articles displayed on Facebook users’ Newsfeed and determine if there is a difference in content for users with different cultural ideals of beauty.  In order to do so, we will create two bot accounts: one of them for an India-based person and one for a Netherlands-based individual. Our inquiry is pertinent as in an age where the stress is on body positivity, there are still entire cultures who believe that their success can be acquired by the alteration of physical appearance.

Facebook users find themselves in filter bubbles when they perceive the posts available for them as unbiased information, randomly distributed to their Newsfeed. In fact, what is available for them has been curated by the websites’ algorithm: usually the most popular or personalized content selected through volunteering your personal data to the algorithm. As numerous articles show the strength of social media in shaping beauty ideals, our goal is to investigate whether Indian customers are being directed towards skin whitening practices through filter bubbles on Facebook. In order to do so, we will be using the tool FacebookTrackingExposed.

Created by the ALEX Lab at the University of Amsterdam in 2016, FacebookTrackingExposed is a browser (Chrome and Firefox) extension that allows users to gather and analyze posts that Facebook “selects” for them. In this way, the tool lays bare the algorithm that Facebook uses to control what its users see on their news feeds.


The homepage of the FacebookTrackingExposed tool

As Agosti, one of the creators of the extension, himself wrote in a blog post that may be read as FacebookTrackingExposed’s manifesto, “perhaps someone will wonder if my project violates the Terms of Service of Mark Zuckerberg’s platform. I don’t really care. From Facebook, I am extracting only metadata, the only thing that is truly necessary to begin the investigation.”

The way the tool works is that it only collects data from the news feed, without gaining access to either private messages or the identity of the person using the tool. Metadata in this sense is the way information is structured, the building blocks of the information the user sees on their feed – be it the human model in the advertisement or the keywords in a status update their friend posts.

Our research will be further informed by academic literature on the subject of skin whitening, as well as popular blog posts and freelance journalism articles.

A study conducted in Mumbai gives insight into the motivation and prevalence of fairness products. The data was gathered through a self-report questionnaire answered by almost 2000 men and women aged 16 – 60. The location, sample size and research method limit the representativeness of the study but can provide a background for filter bubbles within this context. Throughout their lifetimes, 54.4% of the interviewees have used fairness products, with 37.6% currently using them. Gender plays an important role, as women are twice as likely to be among the current users. As 44.6% of current users were prompted to use these products by media and advertising exposure, a link to Facebook, advertising and filter bubbles could be made.

In her essay, Neha Mishra cited the survey of perception of beauty by Indians between the ages of 20-25. Of the surveyed, 71% described it in words like “fair” and “light”. It presents how pressure is put on young women and men to have light skin. The data was presented to show the stigma and cultural perception of having darker skin. Moreover, the expected annual market revenue of skin whitening products could reach $720 million by 2023. Data was found in India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances research. In the study, they also drew the attention that the market is dominated by Fair & Lovely, ‘a fairness cream was launched in 1975 and holds more than 50% market share’. The company promotes itself as the help for unmarried women to find a husband and keep him. The projection of the annual market revenue was estimated by the present growth and current state of the market. It could be characterized as inference statistics which draw conclusions from current data. Countries like India and China are expected to have the highest contribution.

For the interview, we will be asking Meera Navlakha some questions related to our research. We hope to be able to gain some valuable insights from her on the subject. She wrote an article, published by Vice, where she talked about skin whitening creams, containing the unhealthy ingredient mercury, and the consumption of the creams in Asia. We thought it would be interesting to interview Meera, since she is of Indian descent.We thought it would be interesting to interview Meera, since she is of Indian descent and has written articles focusing on issues with identity and culture for Dazed Digital, The New York Times and Vice.

We contacted her through email, where we will present our questions to her as well.

The questions we will be asking her:

  1. Have you or your relatives/friends ever felt pressure to whiten your skin?

  2. What was your attitude towards the whiteness and darkness of skin growing up? How was this looked at in your surroundings?

  3. In your experience, did you observe relatives buying these products through Facebook/sharing things related to skin bleaching? Did you receive content about skin bleaching itself?

  4. How popular are ads about skin-whitening products and how has your experience with this changed when you moved from India?

Works Cited

Agosti, Claudio. “FACEBOOK.TRACKING.EXPOSED – Aneddotica Magazine – Collaborative Blog Since 2012″. Aneddotica Magazine – Collaborative Blog Since 2012, 2016,

Boschi, Umberto, Federico Sarchi. “Facebook Tracking Exposed : Popping The Bubble”. The Progressive Post, 2019,

Dixit, Neha. “Fair, But Not So Lovely: India’s Obsession With Skin Whitening”. Medium, 2020,

FacebookTrackingExposed. Chrome Extension. 2020. Available at:

 Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2008. “Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners.” Gender & Society 22, no. 3 (June 2008): 281–302. doi:10.1177/0891243208316089.

Harper, Kathryn, Choma Becky. 2019. “Internalised White Ideal, Skin Tone Surveillance, and Hair Surveillance Predict Skin and Hair Dissatisfaction and Skin Bleaching Among African American and Indian Women.” Sex Roles 80, no. 11-12 (June 15, 2019): 735–744.

Hamann, Carsten R, Waranya Boonchai, Liping Wen, Emi Nishijima Sakanashi, Chia-Yu Chu, Kylin Hamann, Curtis P Hamann, Kumar Sinniah, and Dathan Hamann. 2014. “Spectrometric Analysis of Mercury Content in 549 Skin-Lightening Products: Is Mercury Toxicity a Hidden Global Health Hazard?” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 70, no. 2 (February 2014): 281–287.

Johnson, Sonali Elizabeth. 2002. “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black? Gender-specific Health Dimensions of Colour Prejudice in India.” Journal of Health Management, 4, 2. Sage Publication: New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London.

News, ABC. “A Healthy Tan: Darker Skin Rated More Attractive”. ABC News, 2020,

Saraswati, L. Ayu. “Cosmopolitan Whiteness: The Effects and Affects of Skin-Whitening Advertisements in a Transnational Women’s Magazine in Indonesia.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 10, no. 2 (2010): 15-41.

Shroff Hemal, Philippa C. Diedrichs and Nadia Craddock. 2018. “Skin Color, Cultural Capital, and Beauty Products: An Investigation of the Use of Skin Fairness Products in Mumbai, India.” Front. Public Health 5:365. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00365



Posted in Data Journalism 2020