Sarah T. Roberts: The Dark Future of Work

UCLA IS assistant professor presents research on the global yet invisible workforce of content moderators.

Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, participated in a discussion titled, “The Dark Side of the Future of Work,” sponsored by the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, at Paris’s acclaimed Gaîté Lyrique theater on January 9. Roberts’ conversation, moderated by Professor Antonio Casilli, included Lauren Huret, an Swiss-based French multimedia artist who has explored the traumatic nature of working in content moderation. The conversation was part of the seminar, “Studying Digital Cultures,” presented by Casilli, professor at Telecom Paris, as a part of his ongoing multidisciplinary series for perspectives on popular cultures, digital practices, and the emerging artistic forms related to these. 

Roberts shared her extensive research on commercial content moderation (CCM), and the nearly invisible worldwide workforce that attempts daily to “sanitize” the internet. She discussed her 2019 book, “Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media” (Yale University Press), based on her ethnographic study of content moderation an  a decade of interviews with CCM workers from Silicon Valley to the Philippines. In her work, Professor Roberts has contextualized this tech industry that operates in the shadows and examined the risks to workers’ emotional, psychological, and physical health.

“It’s always an honor to be back in France, where I have a long history going back to my own adolescence. It was exciting to speak and be in dialogue with my dear and esteemed colleague, Antonio Casilli, to meet Ms. Huret in person and to have the opportunity to engage with a French audience,” says Roberts. “Like many European countries, France is in the process of carving out its own unique set of rules and legal standards to which it will expect the primarily American big tech and social media firms to adhere to, and to get out from under the hegemonic de facto American norms that have dominated the space to date. 

“This conversation is happening at the highest echelons in France, but also among people who are already affected by the status quo, and the changes to come. In all, I find that the public discourse around tech policy issues makes headlines in a way that we are less used to seeing in the U.S.,” she adds.

Professor Roberts’s visit to Paris and her research were chronicled in both Médiapart, a co-sponsor of the event, and the French paper of record, Le Monde. Roberts is a sought-after source across print, television and online media, including 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 and for the award-winning documentary, “The Cleaners.”

Roberts is a member of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, the Association of Internet Researchers, the International Association for Media and Communication Research, the Society for the History of Technology, and the Union for Democratic Communications. She is a 2018 Carnegie Fellow and a 2018 winner of the EFF Pioneer Award.

Professor Roberts co-directs the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA with Safiya U. Noble, UCLA associate professor of Information Studies. 

Visit these links to read Professor Roberts’ most recent appearances in Le Monde (France), Mediapart (France), and MIT Technology Review.

Photo by Stella Kalinina