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An eye-opening look at the invisible workers who protect us from seeing humanity’s worst on today’s commercial internet
Social media on the internet can be a nightmarish place. A primary shield against hateful language, violent videos, and online cruelty uploaded by users is not an algorithm. It is people. Mostly invisible by design, more than 100,000 commercial content moderators evaluate posts on mainstream social media platforms: enforcing internal policies, training artificial intelligence systems, and actively screening and removing offensive material—sometimes thousands of items per day.
Sarah T. Roberts, an award-winning social media scholar, offers the first extensive ethnographic study of the commercial content moderation industry. Based on interviews with workers from Silicon Valley to the Philippines, at boutique firms and at major social media companies, she contextualizes this hidden industry and examines the emotional toll it takes on its workers. This revealing investigation of the people “behind the screen” offers insights into not only the reality of our commercial internet but the future of globalized labor in the digital age.
About the Author
Sarah T. Roberts is assistant professor of information studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 2018 Carnegie Fellow and a 2018 winner of the EFF Pioneer Award.
“Sarah T Roberts’s vital new study demonstrates how online content moderation is a global industry that operates on the back of human exploitation” —John Naughton, The Guardian
“An eye-opening account . . . engagingly written.”—Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch
“This book will define our thinking about the modern internet. Roberts has deftly dispelled the myth of freely flowing content in social media and brought critical attention to the work of digital laborers. Whatever you thought about how the internet works, prepare to rethink it all. A must read for anyone who uses and trusts the objectivity of the internet.”—Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
“Sarah Roberts, one of the leading pioneers of scholarship in the digital age, opens a window onto the opaque world of content moderation. Behind the Screen is the definitive work on this key sector of the digital economy, its influence certain to shape policy and research in the years to come. Not only that – it’s a great read!”—David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
“Behind the Screen is engaged social science at its best. Roberts has deeply researched the labor of content moderators. Her empathetic understanding of their place in the global digital labor market unlocks a compelling theoretical framework for the political economy of communication. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in how online discourse is limited, structured, and enabled.”—Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information
“Sarah Roberts will take you on an eye opening journey into the hidden world of the largely unsung and unappreciated people whose hard psychological labor plays a huge role in shaping the global public sphere. Behind the Screen is essential reading for anybody seeking to understand the private governance of online speech.”—Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom
"The duty of a technology scholar is to demystify a system so that readers recognize the human hands and minds at work behind what otherwise seems the work of wizards. In stirring and clear prose, Sarah T. Roberts demystifies the labor and judgement that influence what we see on Facebook and other platforms — and how they can never achieve what the companies promise."—Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy