Snapchat Inc. removed a virtual face mask from its app after users complained that it reinforced racist Asian stereotypes.
The complaints about what the company describes as an anime-themed animation are the latest in a series of missteps the Venice company has had with one of its popular features.
Snapchat’s Lenses feature allows users to alter the look of a face in a photo or video. Among many options, Lenses can make a person look fatter, younger, like a police officer, Harry Potter or an athlete dumping Gatorade over their head.
On Tuesday, Snapchat added an option for users to digitally add rosy cheeks, toothy grins and very thin eyes to their selfies. The company said it drew inspiration from Asian cartoons, but the Lens came across as culturally insensitive to some users, who said its caricatured features mocked Asians.
Though the idea of Lenses appears to be broadly beloved by users, many options have stirred concerns. By its nature, making people look like something they are not can raise psychological and cultural issues. Stereotypes related to gender, jobs, disabilities have all come through Lenses.
A previous Lens that transformed people into a likeness of the late singer Bob Marley drew criticism for darkening users’ skin color and debuting on a day celebrated as a holiday for marijuana smokers.
Snapchat changed its review process for Lenses earlier this year after several graphic designers said that the company had turned their creations into Lenses without their permission. The changes were meant to thwart plagiarism as well as flare-ups over insensitivity.
As providers of influential services that people constantly use to interact, companies such as Snapchat, Google and Apple have been leading targets for activists who want to see the tech industry promote diversity internally and externally. Snapchat, unlike many other companies, hasn’t shared data about the racial and gender makeup of its workforce.
How Snapchat missed the potentially racist undertones of the anime Lens before it was launched Tuesday isn’t clear. The company took down the Lens later Tuesday and said it would never return.
Companies such as Amazon.com, Beats and Taco Bell have paid to distribute Lenses that promote their products, and additional gaffes could cause other advertisers to second-guess such partnerships. Facebook and several smaller apps are embracing virtual masks too.
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