The Trauma Of Content Moderation

One of my all-time favourite TV shows is Black Mirror, that exquisite show exploring the disturbing side of technology set in a vaguely near-term future. Not all the shows are out rightly terrifying, most of them are more accurately described as eerie and unsettling, but in that way that draws you in rather than repels you from watching. I say this because there are episodes of this outrightly dystopian series that I’ve watched several times over.

In May 2020, show creator Charlie Brooker said he was delaying writing any new episodes “for humanity’s sake”, as the coronavirus pandemic was about as much as he thought we could collectively bear. “At the moment, I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart,” he said in an interview with Vulture.

It seems global capital is not moved to stop doing certain things for the sake of humanity, going by a harrowing story by Billy Perrigo, published recently in TIME magazine. It documents the brutal working conditions endured by content moderators in Kenya working for global social media platforms, primarily Facebook. Apart from low pay and relentless surveillance at work, the worst of it is the mental and emotional trauma that doing this work inevitably results in. 

One content moderator who was fired for trying to get his colleagues to unionize described it this way: “If you do this work, it’s very hard not to experience permanent scars to your emotions and mental state…That sort of thing can change who you are…It can destroy the fiber of your entire being.”

The emotional and psychological trauma of this kind of content moderation, fueled by the demands of tech-powered capitalism has been uncovered again and again, in places as diverse as the US, the Philippines, India, and now, Kenya. Yet, in our context, government and industry types still keep talking glowingly about this work, proud that the country is “attracting digital jobs”. I shared this story on Twitter this week and it ended up being retweeted hundreds of times, but here I’d like to share what user @CharlesDNichols tweeted in reply to my post:

“I hear the other side of this conversation, which is essentially “beggars can’t be choosers” but the reality is we must do better.

African youth are the world’s youth. Exposing them – or anyone – to such toxicity is wrong.”

I think even Charlie Brooker would agree.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: Diet Culture Is Unhealthy. It’s Also Immoral”, a guest essay published by The New York Times. The writer, Kate Manne, is an academic philosopher, and she makes the striking connection between diet culture and our own value judgments, even the way we evaluate the merit of philosophical arguments: “Philosophy, with its characteristic emphasis on reason, often implicitly conceives of rationality as the jurisdiction of the lean, rich, white men who dominate my discipline. We praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery, and, implicitly, feminine.” This except honestly doesn’t do it justice – read the essay.

What We’re Watching:  All around the world, a deadly war on journalism is raging. Every week a journalist is killed and in 8 out of 10 cases, the killers go free. The documentary “Killing the Truth” tells the stories of journalists Jan Kuciak and Norbert Zongo, killed for doing their jobs. 

What We’re Listening To: Catch Me If You Can, a new album release by Adekunle Gold. On the album notes on Apple Music, Adekunle Gold says: “I want everyone who listens to this album, fan or not, to understand my story, embrace their own and be fiercely committed to living life with no regrets.” YES!

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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