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OPINION: Are online dating companies swiping left on Black Lives Matter?

Saturday, 13 June 2020 14:29 GMT

The dating app Tinder is shown on an Apple iPhone in this photo illustration taken February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Illustration/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Race-based filters and bigoted match algorithms suggest discrimination against people of color on dating apps

Vikram R. Bhargava is Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. His research is on the ethics and policy of business and technology. 

Suneal Bedi is Assistant Professor of Business Law and Ethics at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. His research is on marketing law and ethics. 

Black Lives Matter, but just not enough to stand a chance on dating apps.

In the last two weeks, most dating apps have proclaimed that they stand in solidarity with black people in the United States. Yet, their own data suggest widespread discrimination against people of color on their platforms.

It is difficult to take their claims of solidarity seriously when dating apps such as OkCupid, Hinge, CoffeeMeetsBagel, The League, eHarmony, and Match provide users with filters to exclude black people from romantic or sexual consideration.

In their defense, they are not in control of the romantic choices of their users. But why are they then offering race-based filters on their apps?

The dating apps may respond that it is simply a business decision aimed at efficient preference matching. But there are limits to what can be pursued in service of efficiency.

For example, airlines should not offer race-based filters on flights to allow bigoted travelers to select window seats according to racial preferences, even if this would efficiently match up preferences.

Dating apps might not think that they are making ethical decisions when deciding what filters to offer. But they are. They do not offer filters for people with bald heads, amputations, beer bellies, felonies, or thigh gaps, even if particular users might prefer some of these attributes. Which filters to offer is an ethically laden choice.

Some dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr do not offer race-based filters. But even if these companies are not blatantly licensing bigoted decision-making, pervasive discrimination do exist against people of color on their platforms too.

If dating app algorithms learn from users’ choices, they learn from an ethically impoverished data set. For example, given the commonplace rejection of black user profiles, algorithms that demote “less popular” users result in black profiles appearing less frequently. This suggests that algorithms are not only bystanders to the discrimination of black users, but amplify their discrimination.

Are users who swipe left on every black profile the kind of users dating apps want? Dating apps already ban users for sending unsolicited sexual content — why not implement measures to discourage bigoted swiping? This does not mean that bigoted users must be banned, but the algorithms could at least deprioritize such users in their match algorithms.

Some might think that we have made a large assumption in that excluding black people from sexual consideration is bigoted. That could just be a personal preference?

Preferences, however, are neither immutable, nor insulated from critical scrutiny. For example, few, we hope, would defend not befriending a black person because it’s “just a personal preference”.

It is worth keeping in mind the argument that personal preferences are above racism was the very sort of rhetoric used to defend separate schools, water fountains, and restaurants for persons of color. Many argued that they were not bigoted or racist, just that they personally did not want to eat next to a black family. 

Some might claim that friendships, schools and buses are different from romantic or sexual preferences because they do not include any “natural” biological inclination. But that something is natural is not alone a defense. People in monogamous relationships may biologically be attracted to people other than their partner, but most people still consider cheating to be objectionable.

Regardless, race-based sexual preferences purportedly being “natural” cannot be the whole story. This is because these race-based sexual preferences have already changed significantly: there are many more interracial relationships now than there were mere decades ago. The changes to these preferences clearly have outpaced any “natural”, evolutionary biology, explanation of these changes.

Perhaps some people justify race-based sexual preferences on the grounds of wanting certain shared cultural values in a romantic partner. This seems reasonable enough. 

Cultures are constituted with various values. But then finding a person with those values is what matters, not assuming a certain skin tone or facial structure precludes a person from having those values.

To users of dating apps: whom you date, sleep with, or marry are indeed deeply personal choices. You can tweet #BlackLivesMatter, but if you exclude black people from the personal realm, black lives will still matter, but it is not clear in what sense they matter to you.