Sarah T. Roberts: Is Social Media Responsible for Violence Online?

Scholar of online content moderation shares her perspectives with worldwide media on the monitoring of criminal acts and violence on the internet.

Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, commented in USA Today on the responsibility that social media outlets should take for online posting of violent and criminal acts such as the massacre that killed 50 at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand last week. The gunman livestreamed the first of two attacks on Facebook Live, and posted links to his 73-page White supremacist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan.

Roberts, who has done extensive research on commercial content moderation – a phrase she coined – notes that mainstream social media outlets like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have not paid much attention to the potential of hate speech or violent crimes being posted on their sites.

“If we want to think about metaphors, it’s trying to close the barn door after the horses have escaped in essence,” says Roberts in the article. “… The problem of locating, isolating and removing such content is an ongoing one, so even if we stipulate that OK it’s somehow very easy to know what constitutes hate speech and we can find it – which I don’t think we can assume – then you have the mechanisms to do the removal. That often falls to very low paid, low-status people called content moderators who do the deletion.”

Roberts says that tackling objectionable and violent content is challenging, due to its lurking in “some of the more esoteric, disturbing corners of the internet.” She points out also that the Christchurch gunman had a presence across a number of different social media sites and was therefore difficult to pin down.

“The approaches and the orientation to dealing with hate speech, incitement to violence, terroristic materials, differs in these places,” Roberts says.

In 2017, Professor Roberts convened an unprecedented meeting at UCLA of scholars, journalists, and experts with “All Things in Moderation.” She is regularly quoted and featured in international media, including BBC’s “Newsnight,” The Columbia Journalism ReviewFortune, and The New York Times. In April, Professor Roberts was named a 2018 Carnegie Fellow.

Roberts served as a consultant and appeared onscreen in “The Cleaners,” a documentary on the secret workforce that moderates online content for social media companies. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for a World Cinema Documentary, and won the Prix Europa for the Best European TV Documentary of the Year.

Professor Roberts told The New Yorker that machine-learning systems could theoretically take the place of human moderators – who are psychologically affected by continuously viewing objectionable content throughout their workday. However, she questions whether or not machines are a reliable way to regulate this online scourge.

“By and large, live streaming came online with none of that stuff sorted out,” says Roberts in The New Yorker. “There was no real plan for, ‘What are we going to do when people start using it in the worst possible way?’”

Visit these links to read Roberts’ comments and interviews throughout international media:

New Zealand mosque shootings: Are social media companies unwitting accomplices? – USA Today

The New Zealand Shooting and the Challenges of Governing Live-Streamed Video – The New Yorker

Facebook Apologizes for Banning Trump’s Social Media Director – NPR

Inside Facebook – ZDF (Second German Television)

Millions of Mosque Shooting Videos Were Uploaded to Facebook. Who’s to Blame? – Pacific Standard

Definitions of Hate Speech Vary Widely in Online Content – Listener Magazine