September 14, 2018

Target’s content flagging system misses its target


When Cáel Keegan–author of a book about the transgender writer/director siblings, Lana and Lilly Wachowski–came upon the retail page for his book on, he noticed that a core concept was missing. The word “transgender” had been erased from the product description, replaced by asterisks.

And Keegan is not the only writer to find holes in their book descriptions through Target’s online arm. Back in December, YA novelist Nina Packebush noticed that the word “queer” had disappeared from the copy about her book, Girls Like Me, which featured a queer-identifying protagonist.

As Claire Kirch writes for Publishers Weekly:

Titles with LGBTQ themes are not the only ones being affected on, either. Some publishers told PW that their books about Nazi Germany also contain redactions. For example, Adolf Hitler’s last name along with the term “Nazi,” have been scrubbed from the product description of World War II: The illustrated of the Second World War by John Burns (Classic Illustrated Comics, 2015).

We’ll stick to the generous reading of the situation: whatever flagging system Target uses to discourage hate-speech had gone too far. Hence, the word “queer”, which could be hurled as a slur, was overlooked as a whole swath of the population. The word Nazi, which can attract this planet’s most hateful ideologues, was overlooked as a crucial subject for education. And transgender . . . I’m not sure I can think of a positive reason why that common identity might have been excised.

This is, in short, not the future liberals want.

With some prodding, mostly from university publishers affected by the redactions, Target seems willing to correct the errors on a case by case basis. Hopefully the retail giant can revise their policy (or algorithm) post-haste, so we needn’t look into the ungenerous reading of the situation.


Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.