Tumblr's Algorithm Is Failing Miserably At Identifying Adult Content

Image: Lifehacker

Tumblr announced today that all adult content would be banned starting from December 17th, a move that has caused many of the site's users to declare its imminent death. The move comes after the Tumblr app was removed from the iOS app store over child pornography concerns, but aside from being frustratingly arbitrary, the site's filtering technology seems to have no idea what adult content actually looks like in a Tumblr post.

Tumblr Removed From iOS App Store Over Child Porn Concerns

The Tumblr app recently disappeared from the iOS App Store, seemingly without explanation. But it's been revealed that the platform's content filters were failing at detecting and blocking child exploitation images, according to statements by the social media company.

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While the policy will start being enforced on December 17, users are already getting notifications about posts that have been flagged for adult content. "Community members with content that is no longer permitted on Tumblr will get a heads up from us in advance and steps they can take to appeal or preserve their content outside the community if they so choose," Tumblr's blog post states. "All changes won’t happen overnight as something of this complexity takes time."

For reference, Tumblr defines 'adult content' as: "images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples —this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though). Certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine. Don’t upload any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts."

Tumblr To Ban Porn From Blogs

Tumblr has announced that its liberal attitude to what content is shared will be curtailed. From 17 December 2018, adult content - defined as "photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts" will be banned from the site with exisiting content to be reverted to a private setting that makes it viewable only by the poster and not the rest of the world.

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Many of the site's users have complained over the arbitrary ban on 'female-presenting nipples' from a site that is home to many feminist, sex-positive communities and members - but beyond that, the rollout of this policy is targeting much more than just nipples.

As stated in the Tumblr blog post on the topic:

"We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes, but we’ve done our best to create and enforce a policy that acknowledges the breadth of expression we see in the community."

This flagging algorithm seems to have run amok, however, and it's not just vaguely skin-coloured images that have been targeted. Tumblr users have flocked to Twitter to share their images of innocent artworks and even pencil sketches and comics being flagged for adult content:

https://twitter.com/RBtheARTISAN/status/1069821525577138176/photo/1

In one case that should be satire, even Tumblr's blog post announcing the changes has been flagged by the system:

The fact that this has been rolled out so poorly is baffling when a number of image detection tools already exist that have been trained on images of nudity and explicit content. Of course, AI detection of explicit images has always been a tricky one to get right, such as an attempt by the British police that just kept picking up sand dunes.

It's still unclear how this change will affect the site as a whole, with much of the site being built on straight-up porn, while others exist in a grey area of sex and body positivity and queer culture. However even more pressing is the rollout itself. If the first day is any indication, Tumblr is in for a bumpy ride.


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