In a TikTok video that’s been viewed by some 2 million people in the last 24 hours, Texas content creator Amy Andrews is standing in the shadow of her bathroom doorway. In the background, on the edge of the bath, is a collection of sex toys. For a split second, you can see what looks like the side profile of Andrews’s breast — though it’s difficult to discern because of the lighting. She adjusts the strap of her top and comes into the light, fully clothed.
And that’s just the beginning of this sort of content on TikTok. Over the last week and a half, TikTok users have been bombarded with videos in which users expose their breasts using a variety of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it techniques that manage to get around the platform’s content moderation systems. It’s all part of a trend called the Foopah challenge, named after the now-suspended account that initiated the flashing videos.
The videos include ones in which people flash the camera from a distance, partly obscured by a door, or peek a nipple around a corner. Some are close-up shots of someone's face, with an object in the foreground on the edge of the screen that appears to be their nipple. Others show nudity in the reflection of faucets or mirrors.
Users encountering such content have been posting videos of their own mocking the ubiquity of boobs on their For You feeds.
BuzzFeed News managed to find more than 20 Foopah challenge videos within an hour of being on the platform, only to be shown more on the For You page because of that engagement. (BuzzFeed News will not be linking to or embedding any videos besides Andrews's, as we cannot guarantee all users taking part in the challenge are of legal age.) Even today, upon opening the app, BuzzFeed News encountered Foopah challenge videos in four of the first five videos it saw.
It’s viral gold, combining sex and the sense of getting one over on a giant tech platform with an easily replicable conceit. Andrews came across the challenge when tipped to its existence by her TikTok manager. She quickly produced a handful of videos, which have driven traffic to her OnlyFans. “I've gotten more traffic in the past couple of days just from doing these new TikToks versus the regular trends,” she said.
TikTok moderates content by first running videos through an automated system that uses computer vision to see if they might contain any content that infringes on its guidelines, which “do not allow nudity, pornography, or sexually explicit content on our platform.” Anything that is deemed suspicious is then looked at by a human moderator, but moderators are expected to look at a thousand videos in a single shift, meaning they cannot examine in detail a video’s contents.
And besides, Andrews said, there’s no way of knowing for sure that the people in the videos are actually flashing. “Prove it,” she said. Some participating in the Foopah trend are quite clearly using their elbow or thumb in place of a breast or nipple appearing around the door. (Andrews copped to actually getting naked. “Yes, they are real,” she said, when asked if her videos showed her flashing her breasts.)
“This is yet another instance where a content moderation system is pitted against an entrepreneurial younger audience base,” said Liam McLoughlin, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool studying content moderation. “These moderators are often given seconds to decide if content is rule-breaking, and from the Foopah examples I’ve seen, it’s taken me minutes to actually spot. So even if the content is flagged by the filter, human moderators might not be able to keep up.”
The spread of the Foopah challenge shows the power of TikTok’s For You page and the algorithms that it employs. “It shows videos that are not penalized by TikTok from the word go can really go somewhere,” said Carolina Are, an innovation fellow studying the intersection between online abuse and censorship at Northumbria University in the UK. (Are herself has been the victim of overly censorious content moderation on TikTok.)
TikTok has blocked access to a number of the hashtags used to spread the videos, but content using one hashtag, #foopahh_, has been seen more than 7 million times overall, including 2 million views in the last week. Two-thirds of the users engaging with the hashtag are aged between 18 and 24, according to TikTok’s own data.
Around half of the more than 20 videos BuzzFeed News initially found had been taken down within 48 hours, with many of the accounts behind them terminated. But more videos had popped up to replace them. A TikTok spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “Nudity and sexually explicit content is not allowed on TikTok. We take appropriate action against any content of this nature, including banning violative hashtags and removing videos. We continue to invest at scale in our Trust and Safety operations.”
Are researches 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 why this might be happening, and one of the reasons why this weird format has started trending, is that moderation of bodies on social media is notoriously puritanical,” she said.
That’s something Andrews, who has seen many of her accounts on TikTok get banned previously, agrees with. “You get banned for no explanation,” she said. “No rhyme. No reason. It's stupid.”
In addition to his concerns about the spread of explicit content to people who might not choose to consume it, McLoughlin is worried about the trend’s long-term ramifications. “Other content creators, who don’t break the rules, might find themselves subject to even harsher systems which target them directly,” he said. “I can certainly imagine those who talk about breastfeeding to be targeted, for example.”
It's something that sex workers on TikTok are concerned about. Steph Oshiri, a Canadian adult content creator, tweeted that the Foopah challenge was a “bad look for us” and would have a negative impact on adult content creators’ ability to post safe-for-work content on TikTok in the future. “Next two weeks I’d expect to see a lot of accounts being banned or an update to guidelines,” Oshiri added.
Others were concerned 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,’” thinks that the controversy surrounding the challenge is more evidence of the double standards applied to women on social media. “Because we're talking about bodies, and particularly women's bodies,” Are said, “everybody is kind of like, ‘Oh, well, bodies are harmful — won’t somebody think of the children?’”