Sarah T. Roberts: Monitors of Objectionable Online Content Absorb It Themselves

IS professor interviewed by BBC Radio 4; organizing conference on “All Things in Moderation,” Dec. 6-7 at UCLA.

IS Assistant Professor Sarah T. Roberts is organizing a conference on the challenges to commercial content moderation, to take place at UCLA in December. Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA

Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 program, “The Digital Human,” for a segment on “The Sin-eaters.” The term, which originates from an English tradition that dates from the Middle Ages, describes individuals who were hired to consume a ritualistic meal over a recently deceased person in order to symbolically take on the sins of the departed. The practice, which ended more than 100 years ago, has parallels to the contemporary use of commercial content moderators – a phrase that Roberts coined – to monitor and help remove objectionable and horrific material from the internet.

Roberts, an expert on internet culture, social media and the intersection of media and technology, has studied the importance of the work of content moderators and the high psychological and social price that they pay when in an occupation as monitors of violent, disturbing, and objectionable content who work to reduce its availability to the public.

“One of the very first content moderators I interviewed… described herself as a ‘sin-eater,’” notes Roberts in the BBC segment. “The notion of eating the sin in that case really went beyond a metaphor for her … in deleting these comments or in adjudicating them in any way was also to receive them and also to take them onboard.”

Roberts says that within the industry that supports user-generated social media, content moderation is “something of an afterthought,” despite the high volume of content that is continually made available online. She notes that YouTube alone has reported 400 hours of video uploaded, per minute each day.

“It falls down to a relatively small pool of people,” Roberts says of the typically low-paid and socially isolated content moderation workforce. “Much of the content will never be adjudicated.”

On Dec. 6-7, Roberts and the UCLA Department of Information Studies will present a conference on “All Things in Moderation: The People, Practices and Politics of Online Content Review – Human and Machine.” The two-day conference will provide a forum for the multiple challenges to content moderation, as seen from multiple perspectives including scholars, students, journalists, policy makers and content moderation workers.

Speakers include Rasalyn Bowden, former Content Review Training Supervisor for MySpace; Catherine Buni, an independent journalist focusing on health, technology, and gender; Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition; Rochelle LaPlante of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk digital labor platform and co-founder and administrator for, a collaborative forum for online digital workers; Safiya Noble, Ph.D., a faculty member at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and former assistant professor at UCLA IS; and Olivia Solon, senior reporter at The Guardian.

“All Things in Moderation” is a free event, but registration is required to attend. Click here to register for the event by October 31.

To hear Professor Roberts on BBC Radio 4, click here. She also recently appeared on “Kudos,” a program on Radiotelevisione italiana.

For more information about “All Things in Moderation,” click here.


Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA