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Big Brother Is Alive and Well in the World of Content Moderators

A series of video installations look at the murky world of content moderation in Eva and Franco Mattes' 'Abuse Standards Violations.'
July 6, 2016, 2:20pm

Eva and Franco Mattes Dark Content, Episode 4 - A darker place mentally, 2016. Image courtesy of the artists and Carroll / Fletcher, London

On the various social media sites that we all peruse on a daily basis, there's a reason we're not constantly bombarded with offensive material. Beheadings and other gruesome pics and videos are kept from us by teams of content moderators mostly employed by US tech companies, cheaply, mostly in East and Southeast Asian countries.

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These frontline protectors/curators are the subject of an exhibition by NYC-based artists Eva and Franco Mattes currently on at London's Carroll / Fletcher gallery called Abuse Standards Violations. The pair spent a year interviewing people who work as content moderators, a job that—no surprise—comes with mixed feelings and is often hidden from friends and family. Because the moderators don't want to tell anyone, except maybe other moderators, the things they have to witness on a daily basis, which are often unimaginably violent and graphic

Eva and Franco Mattes Dark Content, Episode 3 - His reign stops here, 2015. Image courtesy of the artists and Carroll / Fletcher, London

From those interviews, the artists created a series of video pieces called Dark Content. Originally released on the darknet, the videos now take the form of installations for the gallery exhibition. To keep their anonymity, the interviewees are presented as stock avatars with their speech masked through voice software—both adding to the sense of automation of the job role and the idea that these workers seem to be doing work more suited to a computer algorithm. It all feels very Orwellian.

"It's a combination between feeling good about what I'm doing, being in a powerful place to prevent other people from having to see terrible things and having mixed feelings about the power," explains one of the interviewees in Dark Content Episode 1: I Would Prefer Not to Include My Name. "I feel a bit like a superhero when I think about how I might be preventing a child from seeing a graphic photo, but at the same time don't necessarily feel like it's my place to have the power to decide that the photographer shouldn't be allowed to display his or her work."

Eva and Franco Mattes Dark Content, Episode 6 - The saddest moment, 2016. Image courtesy of the artists and Carroll / Fletcher, London

The videos themselves are presented on screens integrated into mass-produced office furniture, giving them sculptural form and nodding to where the work takes place—home offices and cubicles—while also causing a certain disconnect.

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On the walls of the gallery hang the corporate guidelines from companies like Facebook that the workers leaked to the artists, and have to adhere to. They show the types of inappropriate content that should be flagged. "They serve as a reminder that this act of filtering and ‘safeguarding’ is always a reflection of the ideology of the organisation commissioning it," notes the gallery. Although the workers note in one video that often the companies take on pseudonyms so they never really know who they're moderating for.

Eva and Franco Mattes Untitled, 2016 From the series Abuse Standards Violations. Image courtesy of the artists and Carroll / Fletcher, London

Also in the exhibition is the artists' work By Everyone For No One Every Day from 2014, another series that looks at the unseen global workforces who, for low pay and long hours, support the internet we interact with.

For it, the artists hit up crowdsourcing websites and asked that the workers record a series of dances for webcams. The results were dispersed on obscure social networks.

Eva and Franco Mattes Untitled, 2016 From the series Abuse Standards Violations. Image courtesy of the artists and Carroll / Fletcher, London

"While for Dark Content the artists act as a sort of confidante, here their position is more complex, as their unusual demands appear to both entertain and exploit their performers," notes the press release. "In the gallery, the placement of the monitors in the space is such that, in order to watch the work, viewers are forced into a series of physically awkward and bizarre positions, in a sense taking on the role of performers themselves."

Eva and Franco Mattes' Abuse Standards Violations is on display at Carroll / Fletcher in London from June 10 - August 27, 2016. Click here for more information.

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