July 19, 2019

The Underworld of Online Content Moderation

“More than one hundred thousand people work as online content moderators, viewing and evaluating the most violent, disturbing, and exploitative content on social media. In a new book, “Behind the Screen,” Sarah T. Roberts, a professor of information studies at U.C.L.A., describes how this work shapes their professional and personal lives. Roberts, who conducted interviews with current and former content moderators, found that many work in Silicon Valley, but she also travelled as far as the Philippines, where some of the work has been outsourced. From her research, we learn about the emotional toll, low wages, and poor working conditions of most content moderation. Roberts never disputes that the work is crucial, but raises the question of how highly companies like Facebook and Google actually value it.

I recently spoke by phone with Roberts. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why finding and deleting offensive content is so tricky, why the job is so psychologically taxing, and the fixes that could help these workers and make them better at their jobs.

What is it about the lives of people doing this work that you thought was important for people to understand?

I came to this topic in 2010. The nature of the work demanded total psychic engagement and commitment in a way that was disturbing, because it was a flow that they could not predict, and they were always open to anything at any time. People were flocking to these platforms, in no small part, at least in the American context, because they were being led to believe, either tacitly or overtly in some cases, that being online in this way would allow them to express themselves. What they were being told was that you have your thought or you have your thing you want to express, you share it on the platform, and you can broadcast it to the world. YouTube’s tagline was “Broadcast yourself.””

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