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Digital Studies Institute pres.

Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media

Sarah Roberts, UCLA

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Faced with mounting pressures and repeated, very public crises, social media firms have taken a new tack since 2017: to respond to criticism of all kinds and from numerous quarters (regulators, civil society advocates, journalists, academics and others) by acknowledging their long-obfuscated human gatekeeping workforce of commercial content moderators. Additionally, these acknowledgments have often come alongside announcements of plans for exponential increases to that workforce, which now represents a global network of laborers – in distinct geographic, cultural, political, economic, labor and industrial circumstances – conservatively estimated in the several tens of thousands and likely many times that. Yet the phenomenon of content moderation in social media firms has been shrouded in mystery when acknowledged at all. In this talk, Sarah T. Roberts will discuss the fruits of her decade-long study the commercial content moderation industry, and its concomitant people, practices and politics. Based on interviews with workers from Silicon Valley to the Philippines, at boutique firms and at major social media companies, she will offer context, history and analysis of this hidden industry, with particular attention to the emotional toll it takes on its workers. The talk will offer insights about potential futures for the commercial internet and a discussion of the future of globalized labor in the digital age.


Sarah T. Roberts is an assistant professor of Information Studies at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, specializing in Internet culture, social media, and the intersection of media, technology and society. She is founding co-director, along with Dr. Safiya Noble, of the forthcoming UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

Roberts researches information work and workers, and is a leading global authority on “commercial content moderation,” the term she coined to describe the work of those responsible for making sure media content posted to commercial websites fit within legal, ethical, and the site’s own guidelines and standards. She is frequently consulted on matters of policy, worker welfare, and governance related to content moderation issues and the broader social media landscape.

She is a 2018 Carnegie Fellow and winner of the 2018 EFF Barlow Pioneer Award in recognition of her work on commercial content moderation.
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