This article contains descriptions of sexual violence.
When Julia Fox commented on a TikTok video featuring the word “mascara,” she unknowingly opened a massive debate about code words being used by creators on social media. Creators use various euphemisms to avoid content moderation and participate in viral trends, but experts and creators are now questioning how so-called “algospeak” might lead to miscommunication and mental health damage online.
In January 2023, Fox commented on a viral TikTok by Conor Whipple (@big_whip13), which now has over 8.8 million views. The video featured a caption referencing mascara: “I gave this one girl mascara one time and it must’ve been so good that she decided she and her friend should both try it without my consent.”
“Idk why but I don’t feel bad for u lol,” Fox responded in a now-deleted comment.
Sure, sharing your makeup is not sanitary and you shouldn’t do it—but Whipple was not referring to cosmetics. The term “mascara” is a code word for a sexual experience or relationship that went viral in 2023, but Fox had no idea. After people started calling Fox out for acting ignorantly with a sexual assault survivor, she apologized.
“Hey babe I’m so sorry I really thought u were talking about mascara like as in make up. I’m sorry that happened to u,” she wrote in a comment under Whipple’s video.
She later addressed the situation in a TikTok story of her own, which is now expired but was reposted by other TikTok users. In the story, Fox explained, “So, I commented on a video because I thought this guy was talking about getting his mascara stolen by some girl, and then the girl lent it to her friend. As I read it, it just seemed so dramatic in that video, and I was like, ‘Damn, don’t catch a case, it’s just mascara.’ But it was, in fact, not just mascara.”
“Anyway, I have already apologized to this person, but I just want to apologize to everyone who has been a victim of you-know-what. I’m really sorry. I’m really showing my age right now,” she added.
TikTokers are increasingly using code words to try and get around censorship on the app and avoid content moderation. In an April 2022 column, Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz commented on this new language, called “algospeak,” and discussed how and why people use it. Lorenz highlighted a few examples you’ve probably seen: the corn emoji means “porn” and “spicy eggplant” means “vibrator.”
A lot of algospeak is sexual in nature because sex content is often heavily moderated, and as such, “mascara” became a coded way for people to discuss their sexual relationships. For example, another viral TikTok, which has over 7.3 million views, described a damaging relationship using “mascara” language, saying, “The one mascara I ever really liked ended up damaging my eyelashes really badly so now I’m too scared to try any new mascaras because I can’t take my eyelashes being damaged again.”
The use of “mascara” in this context seems simple—unless you’re not in on the trend. We’re not all immediately aware of new trends in algospeak. People might not understand certain trends due to being a part of a different niche, age group, or online community. The mascara trend was a smaller one, and thus not everyone understood what “mascara” meant right away.
In addition, someone like Fox, who is famous for playing with makeup looks, might have stumbled upon Whipple’s post because TikTok’s algorithm thought she’d be interested in literal mascara content.
Aside from people “not getting” certain trends, algospeak is changing the way we use language on apps in order to evade content moderation—and while that can breed creativity it can also cause confusion. As one Twitter influencer noted in a tweet with over 14.1 million views, “Part of the problem with [TikTok] censorship is that users are making up so many code words to describe serious topics that nobody ever knows what the hell anyone is actually talking about.”
For creators, engagement can also be threatened by algospeak. Creators might feel like they need to “beat” the algorithm in order to get engagement or have anyone see their content and hear their stories. There might be pressure to use algospeak in order to catch a viral trend via TikTok’s algorithm.
The algorithm’s pressuring nature can also make content boring, according to writer and Twitter influencer Kyle Chakya (@chaykak). “I’ll say again what I will doubtless be saying a million times in the coming years: Algorithmic feeds have pushed content creators to conform to the acceptable aesthetic and cultural average,” he tweeted.
Additionally, using code words can diminish what’s actually being spoken about. Using code words might not be the best way to share traumatic experiences. Licensed mental health counselor Jacquelyn Tenaglia (@TweetaTherapist) told Passionfruit, “People must be informed consumers of social media content, especially on platforms like TikTok where misinformation often circulates widely. Unqualified (or underqualified) influencers and proponents of pop psychology often co-opt trauma language and apply it inaccurately or inappropriately.”
Megan Tangradi, the clinical director of recovery center Achieve Wellness & Recovery, also told Passionfruit that algospeak can “mask the severity of trauma,” making it difficult for those struggling to recognize the underlying mental health issues they are struggling with and seek appropriate support.
“To properly address this problem, we must ensure that survivors of trauma and violence have a safe space to share their experiences without fear of censure,” Tangradi said. “More focus should be placed on creating mental health awareness campaigns that teach people about the signs and symptoms of trauma-related disorders, as well as ways to help those who may be struggling.”
We use language to control our narratives and heal through telling stories, something many creators do very publicly. Perhaps this is just the way language is evolving online, but it ultimately may not serve the mental well-being of creators and social media users—instead, it just plays into the mighty algorithm.
Passionfruit reached out to Julia Fox’s publicist contacts listed on IMDb Pro and to TikTok for comment via its media inquiry form. We did not hear back in time for the publication of this article.
If you or someone you know has suffered from sexual violence, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673 for help connecting with local resources for survivors from the sexual violence organization RAINN.