In an age in which “fake news” can tip elections and online extremist content fuels white supremacist terror attacks, social media content moderation has become a battleground when it comes to online security and censorship. Facebook, for one, earlier this year announced a ban on “white nationalism and white separatism” content in the wake of white supremacist attacks committed by people motivated in part by extremist content on its platforms.
But too often left out of the conversation on social media content moderation are the workers, most of whom are in the Global South, who are tasked with keeping hate speech, pornography, beheadings, and other banned content off of Facebook and other social media platforms. In 2014, Wired reported on on U.S. tech and outsourcing companies that outsource content moderation to the Philippines for American mega-corporations like Facebook. While social media users in the West peruse social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, we are largely unaware of the invisible chain of workers in the Global South who are subjected to excruciatingly violent, pornographic, and other disturbing content while being paid a fraction of U.S. wages.
This tech outsourcing infrastructure that exploits workers in the Global South who undertake the underpaid and at times traumatic labor of moderating social media content is not just an example of global inequality and the outsourcing of labor for the sake of Western comfort. It is an extension of Western colonization. U.S. corporate reliance on content moderation labor and outsourced tech labor in former Western colonies such as India, Vietnam, and the Philippines exploits the colonial identification and Western cultural fluency that has resulted from these countries’ colonization. For example, the English language fluency that is often a remnant of U.S. and British colonization in formerly colonized countries has now become commodified by tech companies, who turn these remnants of colonization into profit for their tech corporations. Thus, the global tech infrastructure that tech companies have built that exploits outsourced social media content moderators and tech workers in Global South formerly colonized countries is a vestige of U.S. and British colonialism — one that massively wealthy Silicon Valley tech companies exploit for their own profit.
Content moderation is not simply a “low-skill” job — it is a role that requires a kind of cultural fluency and an ability to filter content that is likely to offend a particular audience’s sensibilities. Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies at UCLA, calls this form of labor “commercial content moderation.” In her 2016 book Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers' Dirty Work, Roberts explains that this form of labor relies on workers having a familiarity with “an imagined audience” or “set of values.” Similarly, Eric Friginal, an associate professor of applied linguistics at Georgia State University, wrote in a 2007 paper that “The Philippines has become one of the major centers for outsourcing because of its tradition of bilingual education, affinity to the American culture, and cheap labor market.” In fact, the Philippine’s colonization by the U.S. has been explicitly touted as a reason to outsource tech and content moderation to the Philippines, because it creates a “strong affinity to Western culture” and English language fluency, which in turn supposedly enables workers to better screen American and Western social media content. Thus, the exploitative labor of Filipino and other former U.S. and U.K. colonies can be understood as a symptom of the continued wound of colonialism.
Silicon Valley’s content moderation labor chain depends on a fundamental colonial principle: forced acculturation and assimilation.
Silicon Valley’s content moderation labor chain depends on a fundamental colonial principle: forced acculturation and assimilation. Under U.S. colonial rule, the English language was the foundation of the colony’s universal public school system. The schooling system became a force for the “civilizing mission” of U.S. colonialism — what historian Renato Constantino called the “miseducation of the Filipino.” The English education system was a tool for training Filipinos to speak, think, and act like “superior” white Americans. These are the very skills that now fulfill the demand of U.S. social media corporations.
Commercial content moderation is not the first industry that has turned to a postcolonial labor force for its Western cultural fluency. In her 2018 book A Nation on the Line: Filipino Call Centers as Post-colonial Predicament, Jan Padios describes the call-center industry as one that “incites both national pride and deep anxiety about the nation’s future and its colonial past.” Padios, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, argues that the economic relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines relies on “Filipino/American relatability,” an identification on the part of Filipinos with the U.S. — one that is a consequence of the material and emotional aftermath of U.S. empire.
Thus, the violence of colonialism, including efforts such as Christian proselytizing, English language schools, and the erasure of indigenous Filipino culture and language, has created both the cultural and economic contexts in which Facebook and other corporations turn to cheap, acculturated, colonized labor. Describing the intensification of “affective demands and psychological repercussions” for Filipino workers, Padios argues that the deleterious effects of content moderation represent the impact of “capital’s colonization of the human psyche.”
In India, 200 years of British colonialism and English education and acculturation similarly found postcolonial incarnations in call centers for Western companies. Indian call-center employees, many of whom are aggressivelycoached to “Americanize” their accents, have become a punchline in the American imagination. Meanwhile, India has quietly become a hotbed for commercial content moderation. Facebook employs more than 1,400 content reviewers in India through third party contractors. These employees are required to review some 2,000 Facebook and Instagram posts in a single eight-hour shift. Notably, in 2015 and 2016 Facebook drew mass protests in India when it attempted to implement its “Free Basics” program, a program that would give Facebook monopoly power over Internet experience on mobile phones — vastly expanding Facebook’s censorship and surveillance apparatus — in the name of “digital equality.” This system of Western consolidation of data, intellectual property, and platforms thus consolidates what has become known as “digital colonialism” — one unsurprisingly underpinned by the underpaid labor of formerly colonized peoples.
Meanwhile, third-world content moderators who are traumatized by the content they filter are often left with little support to deal with the emotional aftermath such as in the case of the content moderation outsourced company in the Philippines at the center of this Wired piece. Jane Stevenson, head of the occupational health and welfare department for Britain’s National Crime Squad, saw so many investigators traumatized by the images they screened that she has since become an advocate for social media companies to provide support for content moderators. “From the moment you see the first image, you will change for good,” Stevenson told Wired.
The affective and economic violence that content moderation enacts on third world workers is a testament to the limits of reformist approaches to social media monopolies like Facebook. Too often, Global South participation in the “global economy” of information capitalism means traumatic, underpaid labor that exploits colonial acculturation and identification. Silicon Valley’s modern colonial labor chain is a reminder that white supremacy in tech doesn’t just come from its users: the legacy of colonialism is alive and well in Silicon Valley’s hidden chambers abroad.