As discussions of major events are filtered through algorithmic content delivery systems, more users are bending their language. Recently, in discussing the invasion of Ukraine, people on YouTube and TikTok have used the sunflower emoji to signify the country. When encouraging fans to follow them elsewhere, users will say “blink in lio” for “link in bio.”
Euphemisms are especially common in radicalized or harmful communities. Pro-anorexia eating disorder communities have long adopted variations on moderated words to evade restrictions. One paper from the School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology found that the complexity of such variants even increased over time. Last year, anti-vaccine groups on Facebook began changing their names to “dance party” or “dinner party” and anti-vaccine influencers on Instagram used similar code words, referring to vaccinated people as “swimmers.”
Tailoring language to avoid scrutiny predates the Internet. Many religions have avoided uttering the devil’s name lest they summon him, while people living in repressive regimes developed code words to discuss taboo topics.
Early Internet users used alternate spelling or “leetspeak” to bypass word filters in chat rooms, image boards, online games and forums. But algorithmic content moderation systems are more pervasive on the modern Internet, and often end up silencing marginalized communities and important discussions.