Two mascara controversies rattled TikTok last week. What is everyone so upset about?

Two separate viral mascara moments blew up on TikTok last week, prompting some to question whether “algospeak” — internet slang used to get around strict moderation guidelines — is as effective as users think it is.

On one side of the platform, the “mascara trend” featured people discussing previous sexual or romantic experiences they had, using “mascara” as code for penises or romantic partners. Elsewhere on the app, beauty enthusiasts were outraged by a seemingly misleading mascara ad from influencer Mikayla Nogueira. Meanwhile, people who hadn’t pushed any of these videos before had trouble understanding why others would get so worked up about a simple makeup product.

“The problem is that with TikTok, even someone is really real [online] couldn’t get it because its FYP [For You Page] looks different,” said Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Depending on what your algorithm is feeding you, you may be confused as to what exactly people are talking about. Or you may find yourself in a similar situation to actress Julia Fox, inappropriately engaging with a video for which you have no context.

On Thursday, Fox apologized to a TikTok user after she left a comment on his video about his sexual assault, which included the word “mascara” as a code for his body.

“I gave this one girl mascara once and it must have been so good that she decided she and her friend should try it without my consent,” TikTok user Conor Whipple wrote in his video’s caption.

“Idk why but I don’t feel bad for you lol,” Fox said in a now-deleted comment. After people started slamming Fox for discrediting a sexual assault survivor, she deleted her first comment and apologized to Whipple by saying she didn’t know that “mascara” was code for something else.

“Hey babe, I’m so sorry I really thought you were talking about mascara like makeup. I’m sorry this happened to you,” she wrote.

Neither Whipple nor Fox immediately responded to requests for comment.

Whipple participated in the “mascara trend,” which included a wide range of videos about sex, sexual assault, and relationships. According to Know Your Meme, the trend started after a user posted on a Jan. 12 TikTok about losing their “mascara.” In the video’s caption, the user clarified that her video “isn’t about mascara” and Know Your Meme said that TikTok is actually about a vibrator.

The trend evolved from there, with people using “mascara” as a euphemism for penis size, beloved friends, abusive partners, sex toys, and more. On TikTok, users often find new ways to talk about sex, sexuality, violence, abuse, death, and other troubling topics to avoid being censored by the app’s moderation system. These codes and euphemisms are often referred to as “algospeak,” according to The Washington Post, because they’re used to play impermanent algorithms.

As a newer and smaller trend, not every user who came across a “mascara trend” video immediately understood what the TikToks meant. And while the algorithm is hyper-specific about each user’s interests, it also tends to throw people out of context in the middle of viral trends, drama, and discourse.

Comments under various “Mascara Trend” posts reflected the mixed reception of the trend among viewers, with some immediately understanding the euphemism and others sharing their confusion. Holliday said the “multiple meanings” within the “mascara trend” made it difficult to establish as a slang term. With the threat of moderation, users on TikTok must also constantly innovate when it comes to euphemisms related to topics like sex.

“It seems to have appeared out of nowhere last week, but it’s part of a pattern of what we’re seeing with Algospeak,” Holliday said. “It’s changing very, very quickly because the whole point of Algospeak is to avoid censorship. So once TikTok figures out what people are using as a code word, it gets banned and then they have to move on to something else. No one can keep up with the life cycle of this slang because it’s moving too fast.”

Holliday said it was “doable” that Fox was unaware of the “mascara trend” Whipple was a part of. She added that it’s an “unreasonable expectation for people” to keep up with every new word that TikTok users introduce. Fox herself said in a TikTok story on Thursday that she wasn’t aware of the trend when she commented on Whipple’s post.

When news of Fox’s mascara comment hit Twitter, users were even more confused as to what mascara drama people were discussing. This is because amid Fox’s transgression, another mascara scandal was brewing within the beauty community on TikTok.

Mikayla Nogueira, a popular beauty on TikToker, has been accused of lying about wearing false eyelashes in a sponsored post promoting L’Oreal Telescopic Life mascara. In the post, she sewed another creator with the mascara, claiming the product “literally changed my life” and “looks like false lashes.” When a viewer asked Nogueira if she was wearing fake lashes in the promotion, she said, “No, just three/four coats and my tight liner.”

Representatives from Nogueira and L’Oreal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nogueira’s ad drew backlash and sparked a debate about authenticity in the influencer space. Viewers expressed disappointment that she might have been dishonest with them. Veteran YouTube beauty gurus such as Alissa Ashley, Jeffree Star and Kathleen Lights also criticized Nogueira, expressing the importance of trust between creators and viewers.

“Stuff like that is why people don’t trust influencers and it’s so annoying,” Ashley said in a TikTok. “Little moments like this are why influencers get a bad overall impression. Specifically, beauty influencers who do product reviews who are sponsors, so people are always like, ‘Oh, we can’t trust them.’”

Because these two mascara discourses were happening simultaneously on TikTok, people had trouble distinguishing what type of “mascara” others were talking about. While some people questioned Fox’s prior knowledge of the “mascara trend,” others argued that the various discussions surrounding mascara — literally and figuratively — made it difficult for anyone to understand what people were trying to communicate.

Holliday said that the meaning of words “exists only in context”. In the real world, when people talk to each other, they negotiate meaning within a conversation and can clarify when they feel they have been misunderstood.

“What’s so difficult about TikTok is that people are creating for an audience that might be really different from what they’re actually seeing,” she said. “In that way, people kind of lost control of meaning.”

While the TikTok algorithm is good at pushing videos according to a person’s preferences, creators often share that their videos ended up on the “wrong side of TikTok,” meaning the audience their video reached was was not the intended audience of the post. This creates misunderstandings that can lead to dogpiling or criticism from viewers outside of the creator’s target audience. And when a video goes viral, the sheer volume of people in the post’s comments section can make it difficult for creators to go back and clarify what they mean when people misinterpret their posts.

“People need to be more patient with each other in terms of meaning and context,” Holliday said. “I hope people start saying, ‘This person doesn’t understand what that means because they’re 30, or they’re not online all the time, or they’re just in a different community,’ instead of immediately blaming them for getting it.”

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