Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (Yale) recently launched her latest work Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media.
In the work, Ms Roberts – a 2018 Carnegie Fellow and a 2018 winner of the EFF Pioneer Award – provides a unique insight into the work that social media moderators are expected to carry out on a daily basis in order to protect platform users from bearing witness to extremely disturbing video and images. She refers to these people (content moderators) as the primary shield against hateful language, violent videos, and online cruelty produced by users.
She looks at the work that the some 100,000 commercial content moderators carry out to meet their output and accuracy targets including enforcing internal policies, training artificial intelligence systems, and actively screening and removing offensive material. Her book examines these interviews with workers from Silicon Valley to the Philippines to give us the first in-depth look at the commercial content moderation industry. Ms Roberts uses this chance to look at the impact that the work has on the content moderators.
Ms Roberts, in an interview with the New Yorker, spoke of the work that she carried out to research the topic. She said: “I was looking at the rank-and-file people who would be fairly new to not only this particular work of commercial content moderation but also to the tech industry. It’s typically considered an entry-level job, which meant that a lot of young people were doing it, but not exclusively.
“In all the cases I’ve looked at, they’ve tended to be people who are fairly well-educated, college grads. Again, these were people working at élite Silicon Valley firms. But, instead of coming into those firms as full-badge employees with a career trajectory in front of them, they were coming in through contract labor, third-party sourcing. They were coming in relatively low-wage, especially in relation to any peers that they could be working side-by-side with in such a place. And, in the case of the United States, they didn’t have health care provided to them through this arrangement; when we think about psychological issues or other health issues that come up on the job, the way that people get health care is through their employment.”
She refers to the case of one moderator saying: “One case that really stood out to me is one of these people who told me over and over again that he could handle it, and he had no impact personally. So then he told me about one night when he was at home, in San Francisco, with his girlfriend—they were on the couch. She scooted over to him to become intimate with him, they were making out, getting close.
“And suddenly he just stiff-armed her, like the football move, and shoved her away. And he said to me, “You know, I couldn’t tell her that the reason I did that is because the image of something I’d seen at work that day popped into my mind in this intimate moment and it just shut me down.” That’s a good stand-in for the sorts of things that people disclosed.”
The book is available for purchase on Amazon. You can find it here.