The facade of liberal democracy only stays clean by putting young women in hate’s way
Moderators bring silences to the Internet’s city of words. They read everything so that we don’t have to. In sites under moderation, they have filtered everything we see. It is Courtney (one of the many moderators, all given pseudonyms here, that I interviewed as part of my research on ideas of civility and changes in the public sphere), not us, who combs the threads of an Australian broadcaster’s website and social-media pages for the output of users “who will just post the word cunt 50 times for like three hours.” It is Michelle who, daily, reads and deletes the many comments posted to news stories on immigration “calling for asylum seekers to be burned in their boats.” Moderators try to keep their employers in the clear by banishing antagonism that exceeds the anachronistic limits of a deliberative public sphere.
But this means we necessarily don’t see their work. Readers can’t look at what goes on in the content-management system or the stream of user comments welling up in it. We can never know what has been cut or why. We may assume, but we can never be sure, what was hacked out to leave the telltale scar: “comment deleted by moderator.” On the sleek surfaces of big media sites, there are no signs of the frenetic backstage efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging of their gravitas, or of the pace that Sarah sets when “you’ve got three hours and there’s 1500 comments to get through, and they have to be read and thought about, and you’ve got to check links.”
This imperceptibility means that we may not stop to think much about moderation as a form of labor that composes the Internet. But as the need to grant the audience “a voice” has become conventional wisdom, almost every media organization now needs this work done. Although the transitions are often poorly planned—Sarah complains her managers seem to be “making it up as they go along”—traditional organizations have adopted the Internet’s measures of success, evaluating stories in part by how much comment they attract. So for every story, a thread.
The promoters of this ethos, including many academics focused on the future of news, have successfully persuaded managers that comment sections are not only a way to cement the bond between reader and news brand, but are ipso facto democratizing. The online expression of voice, political participation, and democracy are smoothly, unproblematically equated.
In an earlier period of mass media hegemony, broadcasters and the press set agendas, marshaled debate, and, with other liberal-democratic institutions, defined the limits of legitimate dissent. They decided whose voice was heard in political debate and who was ignored. This meant privileged access for white men with a measure of existing authority, and views within the dichotomies—of party and approved ideology—that kept liberal democracy stable. Now these legacy institutions must contend with a larger, demand-driven and user-focused media landscape. Content is abundant, and counterpublics proliferate in spaces from which they were once banished.
Inviting the audience to comment is a way of making older institutions relevant to this changed world. But allowing the expression of popular voice carries the constant risk that what Benjamin Arditi calls the “table manners” of liberal democracy will be breached. Unfamiliar political demands might be made, conspiracy theories of power aired, defamatory imputations hurled, and publishing laws broken. The passions and unresolvable tensions of our increasingly agonistic polities jar alongside the sober, neutral register of mainstream reporting.
At the same time, the topics that promise especially bitter, polarized debate, tempt editors with the traffic and comments they can attract. Sarah rattles off a list of themes she knows she will have a long comment queue—and that editors will keep publishing: “Israel and Palestine, Gaza … anything on climate change, the science of climate change. Anything published by one of the climate-change skeptics. But then anything published by a climate-change believer as well. Anything about refugees, you know, asylum seekers, border control, that sort of stuff. Anything sort of what could be loosely described as a feminist article, so you know, like Slutwalk.”
This complex tension—between voice and civility, eyeballs and deliberation—is one that future-of-news enthusiasts are good at waving away, but that comment moderators must bear. Within representative democracy, we can think of moderators’ bodies as being like that element of an electronic circuit that dissipates excess energy and allows it to function. They absorb the excess affects in a period of political dysfunction, and allow institutions to appear stable and unchallenged. They maintain the semblance of civility after older infrastructures have fallen into disrepair. They suck up discursive heat so that political communications systems can keep flowing according to their archaic fantasies of civil, public discourse. If computers have such heat sinks, moderators are hate sinks.
Given the contradictions they must try to stabilize, the worst fate for a moderator is to work on a successful site publishing topical material. Sarah’s employer “had no money to resource themselves properly with dealing with the success of the site. If it had been properly resourced there’d be more people working on the comments and therefore kind of, you know, one or two people having that experience not so intense.” The problem was “just the sheer numbers. You’d get to the end of the day and feel like you hadn’t done anything just because of the sheer numbers sitting there”. The work is often done with gimcrack equipment, designed in a gentler age where there was far less content to process. At Louise’s job, “the technology that we use ... it’s pretty old. It’s pretty basic. It’s been—it’s the same software I was using when I started six years ago.”
On social-media platforms, where their employers have been encouraged to develop their presence, moderators have even less control. On Facebook, the handling of user content is determined by the limited settings that Zuckerberg’s engineers have made available. But this does not necessarily lessen the demand, from employers and readers alike, for moderators to keep pages clean and protect the brand. Social media multiplies the difficulty of the job, as many moderators are forced to divide their time between company websites and social media accounts. On organizational Facebook pages, Courtney says that they “can’t control the discussion because it’s not pre-moderated, it’s post-moderated, but we do need to be going through them and looking for things that are totally unacceptable. It just doesn’t happen to the extent that it should.” It’s impossible not to wonder whether maintaining this veneer of civility can be anything other than piecemeal and retrograde.
The sheer weight of comments—the renewable energy of opinion—becomes a source of anxiety, if not trauma. In post-moderation, long queues are invisible to commenters, who expect that their opinions will be voiced instantaneously. In trying to deal with the build-up, Sarah, with a professional past as a mental health worker, was led to a specific self-diagnosis. “I do remember at one stage feeling really quite stressed. And so realizing that I was suffering … it sounds extreme but I did think ‘this feels like vicarious trauma to me’, because it just got upsetting. And it was just sort of the relentlessness of it because it just didn’t stop, you know? It just kept coming, and it didn’t stop.”
After the lean years of economic crisis, and the serial disappointments of official politics, the voice of the people is frequently raw. Caught between an angry and desperate citizenry and the inertia of contemporary politics, Courtney can only summon a queasy enthusiasm for this work. “It’s kind of like getting an injection for something. It’s not good, but I know I have to have it. It’s good but it doesn’t make it nice. Like the dentist.”
Like many of her colleagues, she consoles herself that at least, for now, moderators have work. Despite bumper enrollments in journalism and communication programs, the news business offers few paid openings for graduates. But moderation is at least one hiring area where youth might trump experience. It helps that no one who has been around for very long wants to do it. At Louise’s broadcast-news organization, “People know how painful it is, but the thing is, none of the senior producers ever have to do those shifts, none of the executive producers ever have to do those shifts.” Jim, an ex-moderator now in a mid-level supervisory position, admits that “there’s the acknowledgment that it’s not the sort of thing that you can do for weeks on end and retain your sanity. [But] I don’t think the emotional side of it is really acknowledged, or maybe it’s more that when you’re doing those shifts you don’t really feel like you can reach out to people in a formal way.”
Observing contemporary communicative and affective excess—the kind that moderators encounter daily— political theorist Jodi Dean also notes liberal democracy’s enduring, systemic resilience, and names this disjunction ‘communicative capitalism’. She thinks that the upsurge in the circulation of political content “in the dense, intensive networks of global communications relieves top-level actors (corporate, institutional and governmental) from the obligation to respond.” The energies of mediated oppositional debate and activism are reabsorbed as informational commodities. The gap between “politics as content” and the workings official politics widens. As for ‘democratization’: “the proliferation, distribution, acceleration and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite.” Comments promote not critique, but control.
But if this is true, it happens at the expense of moderators. Dean risks making communicative capitalism seem weightless. She leaves out the affective labor of that allows a semblance of liberal conversation to persist. We must add to her version of our impasse by emphasizing how this systemic resilience relies on a precariously employed and female labor force. We must understand how they are deputized to shore up the legitimacy of institutions which have historically excluded and currently exploit them, freeing the powerful to present all of this as a democratic undertaking. Until we do, moderators will suffer in vain, preserving the facade of civility in an era of sharpening antagonisms.
In bringing this to light we will also notice that the work of moderation is gendered. It is not just that the powerful have found a way to mute our discontent, but they have done so in a way that puts a lot of young, mostly female bodies in the way of hate speech. In my qualitative research, I found that the overwhelming majority of moderators were women, and most were relatively recent graduates. This is consistent with the high ratios of female to male graduates in journalism and communication degrees in the U.S. (about three to one) and Australia (up to four to one in some degrees), and also with the disproportionate number of men occupying full time and prominent positions, further up the chain. In the era of social media, this adds up to a cruel equation: Not only do women face streams of hate directed at themselves on personal accounts, they also scrub similar threads clean for their employers.
For many women, as Amanda Hess has shown, encountering hate online is an everyday reality. But if some spaces appear devoid of such abuse, it is because there are women absorbing still more negative affect in order to preserve a zombie version of liberal civility. Dispelling the lonely silences of moderation will not only let us recognize workers’ labor but will also allow us to better understand how politics fails to satisfy in liberal democracies. And when we better appreciate who bears the costs of our vaunted communicative freedoms, we may be less inclined to see democracy as the ability to sound off, and more insistent on defining it as the capacity to speak together as equals.
*All names have been changed and employers not named in order to protect the employment and welfare of the many media workers in Australia and the U.S. who so generously talked to me about moderation. In renaming them I have given them names of the same gender.