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A new AI-powered TikTok filter is sparking concern

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What you see on social media is not necessarily real life. Many people use filters when they're posting photos on social media - filters that change the light and maybe make people look brighter, more attractive. If you don't know, now you know. TikTok has unveiled a new filter powered by artificial intelligence which might be too good. NPR's Bobby Allyn takes a look.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Annie Luong (ph) noticed it right away when she opened up TikTok recently.

ANNIE LUONG: I just saw a lot of girls turning on this filter and their reactions to the filter and how it was such an advanced filter, so I wanted to try it.

ALLYN: Luong is talking about TikTok's new beauty filter called Bold Glamour. It's become a viral sensation because it's different than past beauty filters. It uses advanced artificial intelligence. Instead of just putting a digital layer over your face, this filter completely re-creates your nose, chin, cheeks and eyes using a process known as machine learning. Luong, a 28-year-old who works in management consulting in Toronto, looked at herself in the Bold Glamour filter and thought...

LUONG: OK, this looks pretty cool, but it just didn't feel like reality. And maybe that - it's because I know that it's not reality, where I'm like, I know that's not how I look in person, and I know that's - I'm not even going to try to look like that.

ALLYN: Some of the tens of millions of TikTokkers who have tried the filter have had similar reactions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Like, this is hard to tell that it's a filter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is just so scary. Like, it's so realistic, this one, and so damaging for people that think that this is what everyone should look like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I don't know what kind of sorcery that filter is...

ALLYN: Not only is the filter creating a glossier, skinnier, more movie-star version of yourself, but people have been freaking out because it's just so persuasive.

Luke Hurd is a consultant who works on filters for Instagram and Snapchat.

LUKE HURD: It is different. It's not cartoony. It's not drastically aging you or turning you into a child or flipping your gender on its head. And there are a lot of times where you have to kind of look down in the corner and see, wait, is there a filter on this person? And lately, it's been yes.

ALLYN: That blurring of the line between reality and fiction is something that can have a lasting effect on your sense of self, says Renee Engeln. She's the director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University.

RENEE ENGELN: So your own face that you see in the mirror suddenly looks ugly to you. It doesn't look good enough. It looks like something you need to change. It makes you more interested in plastic surgery or other kinds of procedures.

ALLYN: Engeln says some might see a TikTok filter as a playful thing, but it should be taken seriously.

ENGELN: It's not like a TikTok filter directly causes clinical depression, but I think it adds to this culture where a lot of young people are feeling really alienated from themselves.

ALLYN: Whether creating freakishly good images out of scratch or chatbots that can hold sometimes disturbing conversations, artificial intelligence has been taking the internet by storm, and TikTok and other social media companies are trying to incorporate the latest AI magic into their apps to seize the moment. TikTok wouldn't comment on the design of the filter, and they wouldn't discuss how the feature could potentially worsen people's image of themselves. Luong, in Toronto, says she's happy to see so many people on TikTok - mostly young women - using the filter to talk about how social media perpetuates unattainable beauty standards. Many who commented on her video using the filter said, you know, I prefer the version of you without this filter.

LUONG: But then there were a few comments where it's like, oh, it improved so much; like, you look so much better; like, you should always keep that filter on.

ALLYN: Another TikTokker said, as she turned the filter on then off, no wonder everyone feels so ugly all the time.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.