We know everything we post to social media is screened and surveilled, reportable and deletable. There are “community guidelines,” “content restrictions.” Which community? Whose restrictions? It must be some algorithm, right?
The bots are not bots, they are human beings in offices applying rules handed down from outside, perhaps from some other office in California, onto content they must view—your vacation photos, your aunt’s Minions meme, beheadings, your uncle’s pornography, your neighbor’s glorifications of Hitler, your friend trying to make a living selling herbal teas, your local MP’s anti-immigrant diatribe.
Somewhere—maybe, let’s say, in Berlin—people sit behind screens in drab office buildings and get shown everything from pictures of topless Jesus to snuff videos and decide what stays, what goes, and what gets “escalated.”
Artists Eva & Franco Mattes have embarked on a video project along with writer Adrian Chen to talk to the not-bots, the Facebook content moderators forbidden from speaking to the press or to anyone, really, warned there might be “spies” in their midst.
To tell their stories Mattes have taken up a political form innovated by activists like Feroza Aziz on TikTok, who use commonplace and enchanting social media vernaculars like makeup tutorials to sneak in education. (For their part, TikTok content moderators suspended Aziz’s account following her discussions of internment camps in Xinjiang.) Speaking to their smartphones from their apartments, actors Jake Levy, Ruby McCollister, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Jesse Hoffman, Irina Cocimarov, and Alexandra Marzella perform anonymized versions of the interviews conducted with Facebook content moderators, combining the mundane levity of dressing up for one’s followers with the equally mundane horror of online hate.
Day in and out, content moderators are forced to skim the worst social media has to offer and to process it “unemotionally.” They’re delivered updated rules and guidelines that often seem arbitrary or conflictual. In the case of Berlin, moderators are frequently non-German speakers, tasked with overseeing their home nation or region. Exposed to violence and hostility, they become witnesses of a timeline often far removed from their own. They also are given insight into a corporate vision of the world, one often inadequately equipped or even opposed to the ways people in non-Western regions use their services.
The bots are not bots and often, before long, they quit, burnt out from eight hours a day, staring at the worst and the most banal humanity has to offer.