Sarah T. Roberts Honored with EFF’s Pioneer Award for Content Moderation Research

UCLA IS researcher recognized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for groundbreaking work on the international – and invisible – workforce that tries to sanitize the internet.

Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, has been honored with a 2018 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for her unprecedented study of commercial content moderation. She will be recognized at a ceremony on Sept. 27 in San Francisco with fellow honorees Stephanie Lenz, fair use activist and managing editor and founder of Toasted Cheese, one of the earliest exclusively-online literary journals; and Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights.

“I am honored to be a 2018 recipient of the EFF⁩ Pioneer Award,” says Roberts. “Current and past award-winners are people whom I deeply admire and who have changed the world for the better. It is therefore a humbling and profound, life-defining recognition to have my work acknowledged in this way. Thank you so very much to the anonymous parties who nominated me, and to my UCLA colleagues for their continued support.”

Professor Roberts’ coined the term “commercial content moderation.” Her research has been key to understanding how social media companies contract the work of monitoring and removing objectionable online content to low-wage laborers globally. She has spent the past eight years identifying, describing, and documenting how people from Mountain View to Manila screen user-generated Internet content to see if it meets various platforms’ often opaque guidelines, demonstrating the effect that this work has on free expression as well as the on the mental and physical health of the screeners.

Before joining the UCLA IS faculty in 2016, Roberts was on the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, and was a faculty affiliate in the Department of Women’s Studies & Feminist Research at the University of Western Ontario. Her research interests include social equity, labor issues, and literacy within digital media contexts. During her time at Western, Roberts served as the principal investigator for a study on “Commerical Content Moderation and the Global Circuit of Online Work” and tracked the practices of commercial content moderation to Manila, Philippines, where she interviewed several call center content moderators about their experiences.

Roberts is sought-after source across print, television and online media, including The Guardian, WIRED Magazine, Al Jazeera America, TV Ontario, TRT World, El Mundo, The London Free Press, and The Los Angeles Times. She has served as a media consultant for Showtime, Netflix, Radiolab, and VICE. Roberts was also featured onscreen and served as a consultant for a documentary on CCM workers titled, “The Cleaners,” which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. In 2017, Roberts convened a first-of-its-kind conference on Internet content moderation, “All Things in Moderation,”  that brought together members of industry, academics, activists and moderation workers at the UCLA campus.

Professor Roberts is a Board Member of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, a member of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, the Association of Internet Researchers, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the Society for the History of Technology, and several other scholarly organizations.

Roberts is preparing a monograph for Yale University Press based on her findings due to be published in 2019. She is also the recipient of a 2018 Carnegie Fellowship to support her ongoing work.


Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA