Should Dating Apps Redesign to Lessen Racial Bias?

Dating App Bias Screenshot with Black Background

It is no secret that racial bias permeates every aspect of American life, and a study by researchers at Cornell University has found that dating apps are no exception. A paper authored by the researchers, has found that mobile data apps unwittingly reinforce racial bias when they allow users to filter searches by race. The same holds true when an app’s algorithm pairs and excludes people based on race.

The article, Debiasing Desire: Addressing Bias & Discrimination on Intimate Platforms, proposes that dating apps should be designed in a manner that makes them resistant to bias and discrimination. The authors of the study reviewed numerous aspects of popular dating apps and examined the role they may play in increasing or lessening racial bias in society at-large. Research referenced by the study found that significant prejudice exists as it relates to the desirability for racial and ethnic minorities on dating apps. This bias may limit racial and ethnic minority app users from realizing the opportunities for social connection offered by dating platforms.  

Authors of the study go on to suggest that the primary means to address these issues is for app developers to focus on designing their platforms in a way that lessens racial bias. The authors argue that developers can do so in a way that still permits users to exercise some discretion in who they would like to connect with. As we will discuss below, some dating platforms agree with this sentiment, while others refuse to acknowledge that their apps should be redesigned to address the reality that racial bias exists on dating platforms.

CNN reported that Grindr, a social networking app for members of the LGBTQIA community, removed its ethnicity filter, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It is worth noting that in its decision to remove the ethnicity filter, Grindr stated that it did so in an effort to support protestors. This explanation highlights that Grindr may not have fully understood how its ethnicity filter contributed to increasing and reinforcing racial bias among its platform users, specifically. 

By contrast, Match Group, which owns dating platforms like Hinge and Tinder, declined to remove ethnicity filters altogether from many of its apps, in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy. In an email statement to Yahoo Finance, Hinge stated that “removing the filter would ‘disempower’ minorities on its app. ‘Users from minority groups are often forced to be surrounded by the majority. . . If the partner they’re looking for doesn’t fall into the majority of users they’re seeing, their dating app experience is disheartening as they spend more time searching for someone who shares similar values and experiences.’”

Since the Cornell study at the heart of this discussion proposes that minority app users are those most negatively affected by ethnicity filters, Hinge’s argument is interesting, to say the least. Perhaps there is some merit to Hinge’s argument that allowing app users to filter by race, empowers them and allows for a better app experience, but the question is: does that freedom cause more harm than good? The Cornell study surmises that while dating provides one of the only areas in which people may feel entitled to have and state their preferences, those preferences are rooted in and shaped by hundreds of years of racial discrimination perpetrated against minorities. The study goes on to state that dating apps which contain ethnicity filters, provide a space for users to act on those preferences rooted in racism. 

The study cites data from the founder of OKCupid which reveals that race is the “‘. . . ultimate confounding factor’” when he examined how Americans deal with one another in a romantic context. His conclusions are startling: Non-white users of OKCupid are less likely to receive messages or have their messages responded to than white users of the app. Black women and Asian men are least likely to receive messages or responses. White partners are preferred by heterosexual women of all racial backgrounds over nonwhite partners. White app users are least likely to date users of another race and largely pursue connections with other whites. Asians and Latinos also demonstrate a similar preference of dating within their race. The trends persist among college students who are more likely to exclude blacks than other races, as potential dating partners. Black app users send more messages to whites than they receive on dating platforms. These conclusions support the argument that minorities are most negatively affected by racial bias on dating apps.

Studies have shown algorithms contribute to racial bias on dating apps. Some apps have been designed to allow algorithms to match potential partners based on race or perceived racial preferences. This flaw in design obviously helps to reinforce racial discrimination in dating.

The Cornell study goes on to suggest solutions to mitigating racial bias in dating apps, by focusing on design. First, the authors propose that apps could remove filtering and provide results that “intentionally introduce diversity into the results displayed to a user.” Further, dating platforms could find new ways to classify and organize users that do not take into account stereotypes and reinforce biases.

The authors of the Cornell study also propose that dating platforms could prominently display messaging that encourages inclusivity and informs users of how they should go about interacting with others on the platform. For example, articles can be posted on platforms to educate users on the racial bias and discrimination that exists on dating apps. Further, certain behaviors can be explicitly prohibited by platforms. For example, users are prohibited from referring to their racial dating preferences–or race in general–in their profiles on the dating platform Hornet.

Some app developers may point to a perceived desire among minority dating app users to exercise control over the race of users they may match with, as support for ethnicity filters and algorithms that take race into account. However, that perspective fails to appreciate how systemic racism and discrimination prevents those same users from making meaningful connections on their platforms. So, the answer to the question at the center of this discussion is, yes, dating apps should be redesigned to lessen racial bias. 

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Author: Monet L. Duke

Monet L. Duke is an attorney and entrepreneur. She began her career at a large law firm in her hometown of Louisville, KY. She then moved into the financial services industry, and spent 9 years working as an in-house compliance officer, consultant, and regulator. While employed full-time, Monet launched Urbanly Chic, a trendy women’s clothing and accessories brand. She eventually opened a pop-up storefront at a suburban Chicago mall, and decided to leave her corporate job.