BuzzFeed News managed to find more than 20 Foopah challenge videos within an hour of being on the platform, only to show more on the For You page because of that commitment. (BuzzFeed News will not link to or embed any videos other than Andrews’, as we cannot guarantee that all users participating in the challenge are of legal age.) Even today, when opening the app, BuzzFeed News found videos of the Foopah challenge in four of the first five videos it viewed.
It’s viral gold, combining sex and the feeling of outdoing yourself on a giant tech platform with easily replicable conceit. Andrews was met with a challenge when her TikTok manager tipped her off to its existence. He quickly produced a handful of videos, which generated traffic to his OnlyFans. “I’ve gotten more traffic in the last few days just from making these new TikToks compared to the usual trends,” he said.
TikTok moderates content by first running videos through an automated system that uses machine vision to see if they may contain violating content. its guidelines, which “do not allow nudity, pornography or sexually explicit content on our platform.” Anything deemed suspicious is scrutinized by a human moderator, but moderators are expected to watch a thousand videos in a single shift, which means they can’t pore over a video’s content.
And besides, Andrews said, there’s no way to know for sure if the people in the videos are actually flashing. “Prove it,” she said. Some of those in the Foopah trend clearly use their elbow or thumb instead of a breast or nipple that appears around the door. (Andrews managed to get naked. “Yes, they’re real,” she said, when asked if videos of her showed her flashing her breasts.)
“This is another example where a content moderation system is up against a younger, more enterprising audience base,” said Liam McLoughlin, a professor at the University of Liverpool who studies content moderation. “These moderators are often given seconds to decide if content breaks the rules, and based on the Foopah examples I’ve seen, it took me minutes to spot. So even if the filter flags the content, human moderators may not be able to keep up.”
The spread of the Foopah challenge shows the power of TikTok’s For You page and the algorithms it employs. “Show videos that are not penalized by TikTok from the word go it can really go somewhere,” said Carolina Are, an innovation fellow who studies the intersection between online abuse and censorship at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom. (They are herself has been the victim of excessively objectionable content moderation on TikTok).
TikTok has blocked access to several of the hashtags used to spread the videos, but content using one hashtag, #foopahh_, has been viewed more than 7 million times overall, including 2 million views in the last week. Two-thirds of the users who interact with the hashtag are between the ages of 18 and 24, according to TikTok’s own data.
About half of the 20-plus videos BuzzFeed News initially found had been removed within 48 hours, and many of the accounts behind them were terminated. But more videos had appeared to replace them. A TikTok spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “Nudity and sexually explicit content are not allowed on TikTok. We take appropriate action against any content of this nature, including banning offending hashtags and removing videos. We continue to invest at scale in our Trust and Safety operations.”
They are investigations into how social media platforms take an overly draconian approach to bodies and how content moderation guidelines are often weaponized by those who dislike women or seek to gain power over them. “One of the reasons this might be happening, and one of the reasons this weird format has started to trend, is that the moderation of bodies on social media is notoriously puritanical,” she said.
That’s something Andrews, who has seen many of his TikTok accounts banned before, agrees. “You get banned without explanation,” he said. “No rhyme. No reason. It’s stupid.”
In addition to his concerns about the spread of explicit content to people who might choose not to consume it, McLoughlin is concerned about the long-term ramifications of the trend. “Other content creators, who don’t break the rules, may find themselves subjected to even harsher systems that target them directly,” he said. “I can certainly imagine those who talk about breastfeeding being attacked, for example.”
It’s something that worries sex workers on TikTok. Steph Oshiri, a Canadian adult content creator, tweeted that the Foopah challenge was a “bad look for us” and would negatively impact the ability of adult content creators to post work-safe content on TikTok in the future. “In the next two weeks, I expect to see a lot of banned accounts or an update to the guidelines,” Oshiri added.
Others we were worried about the potential legal ramifications of creators exposing themselves to minors on the app, given TikTok’s comparatively young user base.
Are, who said her “stance is ‘I want boobs everywhere,’” believes the controversy surrounding the challenge is further evidence of the double standards applied to women on social media. “Because we’re talking about bodies, and particularly women’s bodies,” Are said, “everyone is like, ‘Oh, well, bodies are harmful, won’t someone think about children?’”