Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespie is a fascinating book on an under-studied subject. Despite the broad-sounding name, it’s not about the whole Internet per se, but mostly about what’s called “content moderation,” specifically on social media platforms.
You may never have heard of this, even though it basically keeps these platforms running. Content moderators, who are often poorly paid contract workers in countries like India and the Philippines, watch videos or review posts that are flagged, either by algorithms or by users, as inappropriate. This can range anywhere from spam to porn to snuff films, and many content moderators end up suffering from PTSD and other ailments. This is what it takes in order for these platforms to be usable to the general public, and one suspects the tech boosters would like to stay under the rug, as it mostly is now.
That would all be interesting enough, but there’s also the political and free speech angle to content moderation. When do the categories of spam or genuine “fake news” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) bleed over into highly opinionated political takes, or perhaps extreme religious beliefs? What if the ignorance of the foreign content moderators leads them to suppress content that should be protected by a free speech ethic?
Rod Dreher noted an anecdote in which a Catholic university posted an ad on Facebook that depicted the Crucifixion of Jesus. The ad was identified as violent content and rejected. Either a bigot, an ignoramus, or a very poor content-screening algorithm was responsible. Or consider the case of the Babylon Bee, an obviously satirical “news” site that was flagged as fake news.
Despite the Internet’s reputation as a kind of digital Wild West, Custodians of the Internet shows that on large corporate platforms, the user experience is heavily regulated and tinkered with behind the scenes. It’s a very interesting book, whether you’re a free speech champion or a tech nerd.