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‘I can’t focus on anything else until I know this child is safe’ - Q&A with a Content Moderator

posted by Ruth Spence


We ask a content moderator about their job and why they do what they do

First Digital Responders (FDRs, more frequently termed Content Moderators) are on the front line of the fight against online child sexual exploitation and abuse. They act quickly to identify and remove child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in order to protect children from the re-traumatisation of having their abuse distributed across the internet, and to protect the public from exposure to harmful and traumatic content. Yet little is known about the role of FDRs or the impact of repeated exposure to CSAM on their well-being.

Our research is involves interviewing a number of FDRs to provide key insights into the roles, responsibilities and some of the challenges faced by those who do this role. We also sent out an anonymised request to some moderators to share experiences through a written Q&A for added insights. Here, an anonymised moderator shares their personal experiences and some of the challenges they have faced while working in the role. We do not know which agency this individual works for.

‘We fight the unthinkable every day’

What made you decide to become a FDR/CM?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, per se. I knew I wanted to work in the CSA field, it just so happened that a FDR position was the first job offered to me.

Can you describe what your work day looks like as a FDR/CM?

There isn’t a typical day, this is one of the “perks” of my job. We can investigate reports from Non- Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), such as hotlines where sightings of illegal online material are reported, we work on automationor investigate users’ reports (e.g. reports of CSAM made by the public via social media sites). If media is shared widely (a Viral Incident) we will do our best to shield users from this content and protect children from re-victimisation.

Even though CSAM is my subject of expertise, I do review other content: necrophilia, bestiality, gore, terrorism. You name it -chances are, we’ve seen it.  In terms of numbers, I honestly don’t know how much media I see per day. In a previous job, it was anywhere between 4000 and 8000 videos/links/images per day. But I don’t see them as media - I see them as children who are in dire need of help and because of this, it can be challenging to take breaks. You definitely do need them, but there is always this voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re taking these minutes away from a child.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Knowing you can’t help them all. Without a doubt. We do have cases where unfortunately, no matter how hard we fight, we receive feedback that a child passed away as the result of the abuse. It doesn’t matter how many children you help rescue, these cases stay with you forever.

Witnessing CSAM every day must be difficult, how does it affect you and how do you cope with the exposure?

I don’t want to be around toddlers anymore and this means avoiding interacting with my friends’ children and excusing myself from any social events where children might be present. Yes, it also means being a parent of a young child is not an option for me. Every time I see a child outside of work, I can’t help but wonder if I have seen them on my screen. The main challenge for me is crying children. If I hear a child crying, I must see the child and assess the situation - I can’t focus on anything else until I know this child is safe.

I do see a therapist, outside of work. She’s amazing. It is so important for us as FDR’s to see someone on a regular basis. Exercise is also very helpful, it is a way to get rid of the deep anger, sometimes rage, that you accumulate during the day. And music; music is definitely a part of my journey.

How do you ‘switch off’ at the end of the day?

It is difficult. I am always thinking about work: how can I improve our existing detections? Did I do everything I could for vulnerable children that day? Did I fight hard enough for them? Did I miss something?

Do you feel able to talk to your family, partner, children and/or friends about the work you do every day? How do they react if/when you tell them?

Some of my friends don’t even know what I do for a living. You can’t be honest about your day, about what you see and how that makes you feel, because doing so would expose them to something traumatic that they did not sign up for. It’s like having a double life, juggling lies and half-truths. My job has actually resulted in a breakup, my partner was tired of the secrecy around my job. It does mean that unless your partner works in this field and understands what you’re going through, you must keep up pretences. Your chances for a long term relationship are actually quite low. Often, when people learn what I do, they either call me a hero, or look at me in disgust, assuming I am taking pleasure in what I am seeing. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is another set of reasons as to why I don’t talk about my job.  But this does also mean that you create strong bonds with your teammates and colleagues at work. They are the ones you can talk to freely. You don’t have to restrict yourself with them.

What would you like people to know about your role?

We fight the unthinkable every day, a battle you know nothing about.   Somehow, we are the soldiers of the underworld, and we proudly serve.We do it so that you can live your dreams; and while this comes with a price, we are happy to pay it. We remove thousands of media per day, even though we’re small global teams. Not everyone wants to do this job, but we are not heroes - we are simply ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. We do not want your pity, nor your sympathy. Most us love our job.

Is there anything you would change about your role?

The public perception and the lack of collaboration between everyone involved in this war against predators. The public is always more interested in insulting us, saying how incompetent we are because we missed something. But for every piece that you find, we have actually removed thousands of media – sometimes we remove media that you shared out of outrage, which takes away time and resources from victims, but nobody wants to say it. More education is needed. For minors, but also for the public. CSAM is a difficult subject, but by stepping outside of your comfort zone, you will play an active part in this battle against evil. Remember, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

As for the lack of collaboration; ego battles and politics come in the way of helping those we have sworn to protect.

What motivates you to stay in this role?

Knowing that somehow, at my small level, I get to bring light into the darkness. Hearing from Law Enforcement that a child was found, is getting the support and love they need, is incredibly rewarding.

‘I don’t see them as media - I see them as children who are in dire need of help’

We thank all the moderators who have taken part so far, with special thanks to this moderator for allowing us to share their views in this article.

If you are a Digital First Responder/Content Moderator, or have previously worked in the role, we are keen to hear from you.

Please contact: Ruth.Spence@mdx.ac.uk

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