CrySP Speaker Series on Privacy: Sarah Roberts, UCLA

Monday, May 13, 2019 2:30 pm - 2:30 pm EDT

Doing the Internet's Dirty Work: Commercial Content Moderators as Social Media's Gatekeepers

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, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Dr. Roberts was previously Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Media and Information Studies (FIMS), Western University. She is a 2018 winner of the EFF Pioneer Award and a 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Concerned with social and economic equity and issues of power, control,
and justice at the intersection of our analog and digital worlds, her most well-known research addresses what she calls “commercial content moderation,” which involves the use of human labor and digital systems to filter content on various digital platforms. Her book, Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media, will be published by Yale University Press in June 2019.