Beauty in a Bubble: How Facebook Filter Bubbles Shape Perception

By Julia Wolska, Diana Gaitan, Mariia Karaseva, Noor van de Loo and Kira Gühring

Amsterdam, April 8th 2020.  

An Indian girl scrolls through her Facebook Newsfeed. She is bombarded by beautiful white faces. It might seem harmless at first, but it’s not. These smiling white models promote skin bleaching practices. 

The images show content posted by cosmetics companies.

Many Indian women use serums, creams and laser treatments that break down the melanin in their skin because the association between whiteness, beauty, and well-being is fed to them like a pill each time they log into their account. Facebook posts are secretly shaping a beauty ideal which in turn segregates society. Women need to whiten their skin to get a job, a husband, a social status. It doesn’t matter how great you are at your job – the moment someone whiter waltzes into the room, you become plan B. The same thing happens all too often with relationships.

Promoting skin-bleaching products is too obviously degrading, so the advertisements use the terms “fair” and “bright” to describe the perfect skin. The idea of whiter-is-better is supported by posts featuring pictures of fair-skinned Bollywood celebrities. The whiteness discourse on Indian Facebook pages has large-scale effects on society. That is why we chose to investigate the filter bubble formed around it. A filter bubble is what most social media users find themselves in: usually the most popular or personalized content carefully selected for you by the algorithm. The goal of our research was to find out how a young female Indian user may be trapped in it while navigating the platform. 

 A skin whitening cream.

The Bot in a Bubble

Step one. Create a bot: Ananya Ahuja, 18, from New Delhi, is very much into skincare and make-up. Step two: add Ananya to Indian beauty groups on Facebook. Step three: analyze the content in these beauty groups.

We discovered that none of the posts featured dark-skinned women. Instead of seeing posts that celebrated different types of beauty, Ananya received recommendations for skin-whitening products and dietary strategies that lead to “fair” skin. We divided all the posts available for her into categories so we could see what kinds of topics were connected to the “white-is-better” discourse. We also discussed with a Women’s Studies scholar who has experience in examining the same issue in an Indonesian context, so we were able to compare our findings to what is happening in other countries. Perhaps after reading this article, some young Indian readers might observe similar patterns in their own Newsfeeds and become aware that a certain beauty standard is being enforced on them.

           The idea that people with whiter skin are somehow superior in beauty and competence has been present in the Indian culture long before the Internet and social media. One of the most important Indian ancient epics, “Ramayana”, which originates from around the 4th century BCE, depicts beautiful Indian women as having white shining faces. The aspiration of being whiter has less to do with wanting to look Caucasian than it has with fitting into an ancient societal ideal. While we usually associate social media with modernity, it turns out that in this case, Facebook’s filter bubble supports ancient, deep-rooted bias. The filter bubble also plays into the e-commerce platforms’ strategy selling the hazardous skin-bleaching creams. Companies are able to track their targeted audience and direct advertisements at them. The effects of this filter bubble have ethical and medical implications because skin-bleaching products are advertised as fun free time practices, but in fact, should be first tested by a specialist because they are dangerous.

The Interview on the Indonesian Perspective

We chose to interview Dr. L. Ayu Saraswati; she is an Indonesian-born Hawaiian resident who is an author and an associate professor at the University of Hawaii where Women’s Studies are her area of expertise. In 2013, she received the National Women’s Studies Association Gloria Anzaldúa Prize for her work.

We contacted Dr. Saraswati after reading her article “Cosmopolitan Whiteness: The Effects and Affects of Skin-Whitening Advertisements in Transnational Women’s Magazine in Indonesia.”

In this article, she talks about skin-whitening advertisements that dominate the landscape of Indonesian women’s magazines. Although we were writing about India and not Indonesia, the interview led us to find some striking similarities which were relevant to our case.

We did some brainstorming on what questions would be most advantageous for us to ask Dr. Saraswati. We wanted to formulate them in such a way so as to engage her knowledge both in the media field and her own cultural experience. Therefore our focus in the interview was on her own experiences and her views on the media’s role in promoting skin-whitening content.

It is Saturday morning, 1 AM, in the Netherlands (Friday 2 PM in Hawaiian time) and Dr. Saraswati picks up the video call made through Skype by Kira.

Kira: As your area of teaching and interest includes digital media, what role do you believe that Facebook has in promoting the whiter skin ideal and the sale of skin-whitening products?

Dr. Saraswati: Facebook definitely promotes it and allows it to be more accessible since the content is promoted and shared. But what is also interesting at the same time is that the app – FaceFilter, FaceTunes or whatever they call it, makes it easier for people to lighten their skin through using this face filter and then post it online. Same thing with Instagram and all that – people were able to lighten their skin and it’s free – before, you didn’t even have access to that. Now it’s easy. Even in the Indonesian communities, most people lighten their skin. Most of my friends do it, even.

Kira: Do you believe that the popularity of skin bleaching in India would decrease if social media algorithms did not promote whiteness-related content?

Dr. Saraswati: Of course. But the problem is not just the algorithm. The companies and ads promote this as well, so it is the working together of the two. And obviously, the Facebook ads. People have written about this not just in terms of academia, but in the media as well and how this is obviously racist, so they have been very careful about using a different language, that it’s not skin-whitening, but it’s sort of about making your skin look “radiant” or “bright”. They have a different discourse or whatever you want to call it, but it’s still the same thing.

Kira: Would you say it’s more of recent discourse?

Dr. Saraswati: It is more recent. Maybe in the past 5-7 years. When I was doing my research, people still used the term “whitening”, “detox” and “white”. But now people don’t use that and I’ve seen a lot of more “brightening” and “evening the tone” discourse. “Dark spots”, you know. The language has been different. It’s sort of like saying: “if you use this, you’ll have a better job. If you use this, you’ll have a better husband, or be more beautiful.” they don’t have that more straightforward kind of “you are light-skinned” things.

Kira: We’ve been noticing that as well in our research. I have one more question: Having googled skin-bleaching products available in Hawaii, we found out that many medical facilities and dermatologists there offer skin-whitening possibilities. Have you or people from your local area ever experienced the pressure to whiten your skin? If so, what factors pushed you towards that decision?

Dr. Saraswati: I was born and raised in Indonesia so this issue really caught my attention because when I was there I used skin-whitening products myself, both at a salon with my mother and items like skin-whitening cream. The reason why I did not use them daily was that I was lazy. Most Indonesian women were introduced to skin-whitening products the same way people recommend any other skincare product or makeup: in the bathroom through friends, co-workers, and relatives. And so it’s usually part of community practice, but that’s very specific to the Indonesian kind of culture, maybe because, for Indonesians, conformity in a certain way is very important and community acceptance. So we do what people we love do. I don’t know what the case is with Indian culture, it may not apply in different cultures.

Kira: But it was very interesting to get the Indonesian perspective as well. Thank you.

According to Dr. Sarawati, there has been a change in the discourse concerning the advertising language of skin-whitening products within the last five to seven years. In her article the word “whitening” was still used a lot (see all her examples), but now it has been replaced with terms like “brightening” or “lightening” or “fairness” (that comes down to “evening the skin tone”). We can already see this in the content on Ananya’s Facebook Newsfeed as well. The issue is still there, but the products promoting skin-whitening now have a more subtle rebranding. Ananya’s Newsfeed is full of beautiful light-skinned women.

Images from Ananya’s Timeline, showing beauty products advertised with words like “fairness” and “light” and images of women with a light skin promoted as “beautiful” or with hearts.

Brainwashed by a Bubble

Facebook has an algorithm at its heart. This algorithm organizes the posts and creates a curated Newsfeed that somehow manages to provide a seemingly endless stream of interesting content. The content is aimed at engaging the user and promoting the use of the platform, as the algorithm is geared towards posts that generate a lot of user interactions (likes, shares, comments). Over time, this can lead to the user spending more time on the platform and, as more data is collected, to a filter bubble.

Facebook users find themselves in filter bubbles when they perceive the posts available for them as unbiased information, randomly distributed to their Newsfeed. Actually, 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.

The posts on the Newsfeed therefore further repeat ideas and conceptions, and by slowly filtering out opposing content, support the idea that whiter-is-better. People have begun to speak about the filter bubble issue, with the media focusing on its consequences for politics. Yet filter bubbles can emerge around any topic and in addition to this, also have an influence on advertising.

Skin whitening, a common practice in many countries, has received a lot of backlash from health organizations like the World Health Organisation. The main warnings were about the ingredients used in many of the products. As Dr. Saraswati mentioned, in recent years there has been a change in the discourse surrounding the vocabulary for promoting these products. Words like “whitening” have been replaced with terms that have more positive connotations like “brightening”.

As numerous articles show the strength of social media in shaping beauty ideals, our goal is to investigate whether Indian users are being directed towards skin whitening practices through filter bubbles on Facebook. In order to do so, we used FacebookTrackingExposed.

Bursting the Bubble

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

As Claudio Agosti, one of the creators of the extension, wrote in a blog post that 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 Newsfeed, without gaining access to either private messages or the identity of the person using the tool. The tool breaks apart the newsfeed to expose the building blocks of the information the user sees on their feed (the metadata) – be it the human model in the advertisement or the keywords in a status update their friend posts.

As we were investigating the Indian perspective, we first attempted to use a VPN to make Ananya seem more real. Facebook managed to flag the bot and take it down before we made our first post. Our second attempt was a lot more successful, yet we could not make as much use of Facebook’s location-based services. Another issue we faced was dealing with all 40 of the friend requests we received throughout the 25 days our bot was active, which we decided to ignore to focus on solely the non-friend content. By following pages of Indian companies, or the Indian branch of international companies, we managed to overcome the country-specific barriers.

We were active on Ananya’s account multiple times daily between March 8th and April 1st, posting status updates, liking skincare content and sharing posts that explicitly focused on fairness. To gain further insights into the filter bubble, the data was manually coded using random sampling. Duplicates were removed before sampling, as they are not a clear indication of the frequency of the post. In the beginning, refreshing the Newsfeed would cause the same posts to appear as no new content was published in the meantime. This method left us with 298 unique posts that were organized based on the content of the posts.

We found that the largest category of content was skincare, supporting the claim of the filter bubble. Celebrities, who have proven to be influential when it comes to promoting beauty ideals in society, make up the second-highest content category. Many articles discussed the beauty routines of celebrities or had before and after photos where the “lightening masks” Dr. Saraswati mentioned were applied. Another article focused solely on celebrities that had undergone skin whitening treatments.

Screenshots from Ananya’s Newsfeed showing the influence of celebrities.

Subcategories of Skincare

Breaking up the skincare category, it becomes obvious that there is a range of issues that are being addressed within the skincare sector. In regard to fairness, many posts and video tutorials focused on a certain area. The main areas were the hands and feet, lips, and underarms. Other content, like a “whitening sunblock” from Lotus Herbals, focused on “preventing” darker skin.

Screenshots depicting two common types of content: one of many whitening tutorials and a whitening sunscreen.

Many companies use images of their products to promote them via Facebook. While these do not use the advertising function of the Facebook interface, they still function as ads for the products. Seeing these products on their feed may inspire the user to try them out, or compare products from different pages, furthering the filter bubble. The ideals embedded in these product posts can be more revealing than the category “skin-whitening”, as a lot of brands use more implicit tactics.

The Frequency of Words Used in Captions

By analyzing the captions of some of the more explicitly fairness related content, ranging from tutorials on whitening your skin to “white glow” creams, the changing discourse is clear. The words “whiten” and “fair” are accompanied by “glow”, “tone”, and  “brighten”. The latter words have a more positive connotation, but the negatively coded words “remove” and “anti” were used in many posts as well. The captions also reveal what the treatments can “fix”, primarily treating “dark” and “dull”. The visual also reveals the promises the products come with when it comes to how quickly one can see results as the words “now”, “day”, “today”, and “week” show up.

The finer nuances of the filter bubble also included articles that recommended lipsticks to match a “dusty” skin tone or “tone evening” serums. The more subtle word choice, also reflected in the captions, stands in contrast to advertising in the past. In her article from 2010, Dr. Saraswati describes how the word “white” is used deliberately in magazine advertisements.

The posts on the Newsfeed also reflect the changes over time, as pages from Vogue India to Lotus Herbals posted content related to current events. This spanned from International Women’s Day to Holi and staying safe during the holiday, to social distancing and fears about COVID-19. By creating these connections the content stays relevant.

While the amount of posts promoting the notion that women should strive for a fair complexion definitely points towards a filter bubble, what is interesting about these posts is their frequent avoidance of the word “white” and its derivatives.  The idea of whiteness is concealed but always striven for, as in Dr. Saraswati’s example of the ancient discolored statues with the characteristically white face traits. The change in discourse that Dr. Saraswati talked about can be sensed because this filter bubble is created to serve two different ideologies at the same time. On the one hand, the word “white” in a modern Indian context can raise the discussion among Facebook users about the media pushing them towards admiring Caucasian people – this was neither the intention of the Indian society nor of the whitening products companies, India and its different skin colors having nothing to do with the Western ideals. On the other hand, India already has an available cultural obsession with paler skin – and that can be exploited. “White” is replaced with “radiant” and “bright”, more neutral words with a positive valence to which people naturally strive. The body areas for which the products are intended don’t always depict the face, sometimes they are showcased on hands, feet or underarms, body parts that don’t necessarily bring in the notion of identity.

Besides the usage of more politically correct words, the whiteness ideal is frequently attached to other types of attractive content. The Facebook user spends more time on the platform reading what they are interested in, while skin-bleaching practices are scattered among lists of fun or relaxing self-care guidelines, dating tips or celebrity gossip. Skin-whitening products are separated from the idea of a potentially hazardous medical practice and presented as a part of a normal routine. This is then brought to the level of a filter bubble, where almost every suggested post follows the same pattern. Following Dr. Saraswati’s example from her own experience using skin bleaching creams, it might be the case that the discussion about whitening products continues while the user is offline, with people also trapped in the same bubble.

The fact that the largest category of content was related to skincare is explained by the number of advertisements needed to sell the products. The promotion of skin-bleaching on Facebook makes sense because most online platforms selling cosmetics also target their potential customers using trackers. The second major category was that of celebrities because many Indians love and support their film industry and follow their main actors and actresses’ activities. If Priyanka Chopra, not only a Bollywood actress but also a Miss World, promotes a skin-bleaching cream, many Indians will take her word for granted. This filter bubble continues to build itself on popular topics seemingly unrelated to whiteness, such as the COVID-19 crisis. The constant enforcement of the whiter-is-better beauty ideal will continue as long as people buy laser treatments and whitening creams, but hopefully, users will slowly begin to realize that they are actually trapped in a bubble.


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Posted in Data Journalism 2020