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The Stories of Content Moderators, Hosted on the Darknet

Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, “Dark Content,” (2015), all photographs courtesy the artists.
Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, ‘Dark Content’ (2015) (all images courtesy the artists)

Eva and Franco Mattes’s latest work, Dark Content (2015–ongoing), is a series of videos only viewable through the Tor Browser and hosted on the darknet. One new video is released approximately every month. In its form of distribution and its content, the series — which launched first as an exhibition at Essex Flowers — raises and grapples with a host of pressing questions: Do we consider anonymous speech online and off a civil right? If so, how do we defend that right, given invasive surveillance by the US, China, and England? What constitutes illegal speech, and how do we protect ourselves from it in unmoderated spaces like Reddit or on darknet platforms? While “terrorism” is used as a hammer to destroy protected speech, cyber-libertarians too easily ignore the very real challenges free speech presents. Dark Content focuses on the people so often ignored in these discussions, yet integral to all of them: the content moderators.

Trailer for Eva and Franco Mattes, ‘Dark Content’

Moderators are the people who remove content deemed unsuitable by the platforms that hire them. This can mean it violates a local law that, for instance, bans blasphemy or criticism of a leader; international laws regarding child pornography or copyrighted content; or rules that are completely platform-specific, such as Facebook and its nudity policy. More often than not, moderators are dealing with a complex interplay of guidelines, legalese, and guesswork done by users with access to flagging and reporting buttons. Poring over troubling content for hours a day and making decisions about what’s acceptable is tough work. Many content moderators are exposed daily to videos and photographs that would make most of us sick.

In Dark Content, we hear the personal stories of moderators through computer-generated voices, matched with default avatars from video editing software. The stock images are crudely photoshopped to become puppets, mouthing the anonymized stories. In episode three, a voice explains the reasonable deletion of illegal content, then begins discussing the process of controlling visitor experiences, something all private businesses have a right to do, to an extent. The voice admits, “There were times in which videos were removed that I believe were only done so to appeal to political reasons.” That these companies and their platforms hold so much of our speech today, but have economic, social, and even political reasons that would cause them to limit that speech is a distressing reality. “An order to remove content based on a political decision is just par for the course,” the voice continues. It’s alarming how little transparency exists regarding what’s removed online, by whom, and why.

Exhibition view, Essex Flowers, New York, Eva and Franco Mattes, “Dark Content,” (2015) photograph by Kyle Khnodell.
Eva and Franco Mattes, ‘Dark Content,’ episode 3 (2015), installation view at Essex Flowers, New York (photo by Kyle Khnodell)

Due to non-disclosure agreements and the nature of the work, the Matteses initially had trouble finding subjects, until they decided to pose as a software company seeking to hire their own content moderators. Ultimately, the artists anonymously interviewed over 100 moderators and plan on releasing roughly 12 videos in total, with three available so far.

Over email, Matteses explained to me that a big part of the reason they wanted to talk to content moderators is how vastly different their experience of the internet is from that of the average browser. While much of our time online is spent on Web 2.0 platforms where we publish, share, comment, and like things, “content moderators do the opposite: they remove. As much as we strive for attention, they strive for invisibility. In a sense they are the anti-internet,” the Matteses wrote.

Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, “Dark Content,” (2015) Episode 1.
Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, ‘Dark Content,’ episode 3 (2015) (click to enlarge)

The lack of objectionable content in our daily feeds is only due to the hard work of content moderators. They look through posts — either all of them or only those flagged by users — and manually delete whatever material each platform has defined as unwanted. “They fascinate us because they’re caught in the middle of many different forces: political, moral, ethical, and even religious,” the Matteses said. “In a sense they’re a strange mix of a cop, a priest, an editor, an overzealous granny, and an exterminator.”

And although most popular social media platforms manage to keep their sites clean of illegal or otherwise violative content through moderation, that content generally doesn’t disappear — it ends up on the darknet. This has helped earn the darknet a reputation of illegality and danger, one that the Matteses want to complicate:

We wanted to invite people to browse anonymously into this side of the internet most of us are not familiar with. The darknet is largely presented by mainstream media as a marketplace for drugs, weapons, and pornography, but it is also the platform that allowed free speech for activists living in oppressive regimes, during the Arab Spring for example, or the revelations of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden … The general thought is that if you want to be anonymous, it means you’re doing something illegal. This is incredibly wrong. Anonymity is a fundamental right. It is at the base of democracy. Think about voting, for example: it is expressed anonymously to avoid pressure, manipulation, or trade … There is no democracy without anonymity. 

Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, “Dark Content,” episode 1, (2015).
Screenshot from Eva and Franco Mattes, ‘Dark Content,’ episode 1 (2015)

So the real question behind the work is: what kind of internet do we want to support: one where any content deemed objectionable by a platform or government can simply disappear without debate? Dark Content asks us to begin exploring the darknet and see for ourselves if anonymity, free speech, and even dangerous speech are worth protecting. To learn how to see the work, listen to the stories, and make your own decision, follow the instructions to download the Tor Browser and visit Dark Content at this URL: http://5cqzpj5d6ljxqsj7.onion.

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