From ‘Mascara’ To ‘Accountant,’ ‘Algospeak’ Is Taking Over Social Media

An online language competition is currently underway, but the victor remains uncertain. Social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are battling against language and content that contradicts their community standards. They’ve made significant strides in tracking and removing such content, but social media users have developed coded language to evade algorithmic detection, known collectively as ‘algospeak.’

The use of coded terminology to conceal meaning is not a new. Historically, such codes have been used by small groups, but the broad reach of social media could see ‘algospeak’ more widely influencing everyday language.

But there now seems to be an online standoff

Social media platforms use algorithms to automatically flag and remove content that is banned due to the sheer volume of posted material. This is actively done to limit the spread of misinformation as well as to prevent the spread of offensive or inappropriate content.

However, many individuals have valid reasons for discussing sensitive topics on these platforms. For instance, victims of sexual assault may find it therapeutic to share their experiences with others. While those struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide can benefit from online communities that provide support. Nonetheless, such content may be flagged and removed by algorithms as a violation of a site’s terms of service.

Those who continue to flout site policies will find their posts being downranked or made less visible. A process called shadow banning. Repeated violations can also result in temporary or permanent suspension.

Read: Emoji Of Pregnant Man To Be Introduced This Year

Using code known as ‘Algospeak’ seems to be the way forward in order to bypass certain algorithms

To bypass content filters, social media users have taken to using coded language in place of banned terms. For example, references to sex may be replaced with a ‘safe’ word like “mascara.” While “unalive” has become an agreed-upon term for death or suicide. “Accountant” is used in lieu of sex worker, “corn” for porn, and “leg booty” for LGBTQ. The term “camping” has been used to discuss the topic of abortions. More highly illegal and disgusting topics, like accounts offering to trade explicit images of children, have used the coded term “cheese pizza.”

While using coded language to bypass content filters is a relatively new phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to history. For instance, in Tsarist Russia, the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin made use of symbolic language, known as “Aesopian,” to evade censorship. For instance, the term “revolution” was replaced with “the big job.

What is 'Algospeak'?
Image Credit: Circular Challenge

Many subcultures have developed their own private codes, such as argot, cant, or slang. Which are understood only by in-group members. Polari was a private language used by gay men in early 20th-century Britain. While rhyming slang was used by gang members to blur their meaning to outsiders.

Leetspeak, which evolved in the 1980s as internet pioneers ventured online, involves using numbers and symbols as stand-ins for letters. Algopspeak, which utilizes creative misspellings and ‘safe’ words, has been used to evade censorship in contexts beyond sexual content, such as during protests against government crackdowns on dissent in Iran.

‘Algospeak’ is relatively new, but to evade detection is a modern phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to history

A new method of getting around content moderation policies emerged about a decade ago with the rise of emojis. These small pictograms were used to represent human anatomy and thus avoid restrictions on sexual content. Even innocent-looking emojis like the eggplant and peach took on new meanings.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram eventually blocked their use for sexual purposes in 2019. As users try to find ways to get around content filters, they come up with new ‘algospeak’ terms to replace banned words. This puts social media platforms in a constant battle to keep up with an evolving language and determine what is considered acceptable content.

Misunderstandings do easily occur, such as when actress Julia Fox commented on the innocuous term “mascara” on TikTok. Not realizing it was being used as a coded term for sexual assault. As the verbal tug of war continues, it is likely that some ‘algospeak’ terms will spill over into offline vocabulary and be used as dog whistles to taunt political opponents.

Keep Reading: Bonhoeffer’s “theory of stupidity”: We have more to fear from stupid people than evil ones


  1. What is ‘algospeak’? Inside the newest version of linguistic subterfuge.” The Conversation. Roger J. Kreuz. April 13, 2023
  2. Decoding what algospeak really means for content creators.” Fast Company. KC Ifeanyi. 31 October 2022