Scrolling through Netflix in search of something to watch can be a dangerous game. After looking at far too many categories that incorporate the word quirky, lots of regrettable stand-up special titles, and a Piers Morgan-hosted show called Killer Women, I almost always just watch The Office again. But the search for something to stream can be frustrating for some customers for another, more insidious reason. Black Netflix users have reported concerns that the service may be promoting certain titles differently based on a user’s race. These users have noticed that Netflix’s visual representations of titles sometimes feature black actors who barely appear in a given film or show.
On Wednesday, Stephen Colbert spotlighted some examples of this practice on The Late Show. While Love Actually features a majority white ensemble cast, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a black actor with a very minimal role in the film, appeared front and center on Netflix’s row art for some black users. “Yeah, he’s in the movie, the same way that I’m in The Hobbit,” said Colbert, who actually did cameo in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for about two seconds.
Netflix users have taken to social media to share similar bait-and-switch posters for The Good Cop, Set It Up, and Like Father.
Netflix has responded by claiming that they only collect data on how people use the streaming service and not on their personal demographic information. The streaming service has, however, admitted to a new algorithm that involves “artwork personalization,” because, according to Netflix, poster art constitutes 82 percent of a viewer’s focus when they are deciding what to watch. But Colbert isn’t so sure about these numbers: “When you’re on Netflix, 30 percent of your focus is on your phone, 18 percent is on the plate of nachos balanced on your gut, 20 percent is how do I reach my Coke without making the Nachos fall over and by then Daredevil’s over.”