Sarah T. Roberts: New Book Goes “Behind the Screen” of Online Content Moderation

Assistant IS professor publishes seminal work on labor practices in the social media industry, privacy issues, and policies that govern the internet.

About ten years ago, as user-generated content was exploding across the social media landscape, an emerging academic researcher named Sarah T. Roberts began to wonder about the process of how that content was being moderated.  Who was doing that work, and how was it done? 

The answers she found were not exactly pretty. Over the next years, Roberts would be among the first to dig into the labor practices and content moderation policies of social media companies such as Myspace, Facebook, Instagram and others. Her research revealed a dark side of the internet, a world in which low-paid and often poorly treated workers labored to moderate or remove objectionable content from social media or websites. Coining the phrase “commercial content moderation,” Roberts’ groundbreaking research detailed the labor conditions and mental health impacts on the thousands of workers who toiled to remove obscene, violent and criminal content from the internet.

Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, has authored a foundational book on the hidden workforce of online content moderators. Photo by Stella Kalinina

Joining the Information Studies Department at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in 2016, Roberts continued to explore social media practices and privacy issues and the implications of internet governance and policy. In 2017, she developed and convened to be the first national research conference on commercial content moderation, “All Things in Moderation,” at UCLA. In 2018, in recognition of the importance and promise of her work, Professor Roberts was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Foundation.

With the support of the Carnegie Foundation, Roberts has now published a defining work about commercial content moderation.  Behind the Screen, Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media. (Yale University Press, June 2019). 

Described by the publisher as “An eye-opening look at the invisible workers who protect us from seeing humanity’s worst on today’s commercial internet,“ Behind the Screen” offers the first extensive ethnographic study of the commercial content moderation industry. Drawing on interviews with workers in the U.S. and across the globe working in small firms and major social media companies, the new book offers important context about an industry that has operated largely in the shadows, examining troubling labor practices and the emotional toll the labor of removing the worst of the internet takes on its workers.

In a blurb on the book’s cover, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, called Roberts, “one of the leading pioneers of scholarship in the digital age,” saying “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.”

“Sarah is a rockstar and we offer her our heartiest congratulations on this achievement,” says Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  “This is groundbreaking work with significant implications for an emerging field.  The Carnegie Foundation chose wisely in recognizing the importance of her research and has our greatest thanks for their support.” 

Sarah T. Roberts is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Studies at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her research regarding social media has drawn attention within academia and generated significant public and policy interest and news coverage. Her research and comments have been featured in news outlets such as The New York Times, the Associated Press, Le Monde, The Economist, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, the Washington Post and CNN, and others worldwide. Roberts also served as a consultant for and is featured in the documentary film “The Cleaners.” In addition to her selection as a Carnegie Fellow, Roberts is a winner of the 2018 Electronic Freedom Foundation 2018 Pioneer Award.  

Behind the Screen, Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media” is a publication of Yale University Press, June 2019.