The Puzzle of Social Content Moderation and How to Manage It



How are your social media and community managers doing? Help them avoid the maddening plight of other content moderators with this guide.

Social media moderators and community managers serve as the custodians of a brand’s reputation…but as any comments section will demonstrate, they may face varying levels of backlash from users in the process. And while Casey Newton’s in-depth report on the horrors of Facebook’s content moderation firms might seem a world away from the work they do each day, it’s not as far as we might think. It’s time to start thinking about how to help these folks avoid their own horrors.

Why worry about this if the platforms themselves have their own moderators? Although moderators for Facebook and other platforms are drastically reducing the number of objectionable posts users see, there are a number of categories of posts that might meet the Terms of Service for a site but may otherwise be distressing or unpleasant to see repeatedly.

What’s more, even exposure to low-grade negativity (look below any brand’s Instagram post and you’ll see at least five unsolicited complaints about service) can rewire the brain– including the hippocampus, the section of the brain responsible for problem solving and intelligent, rational thought. Suffice it to say: you want that capacity intact in the people who represent your brand online!

So what can be done to reduce the impact of this sort of work? Many elements of it are unavoidable—given that 72% of consumers expect a response to a complaint posted on Twitter within the hour, those types of posts won’t go away anytime soon—but their lasting negative impact doesn’t have to be.

Acknowledge the challenging nature of the work

Unintentionally or not, the plight of community managers and social media managers are often minimized in conversation. Time and again, missteps by these folks are attributed to interns or other unskilled workers- implying that their work can be done easily or without much thought. Maintaining this falsehood is what’s contributing to the rise of AI as a “solution” to these challenges. But Data and Society researcher Robyn Caplan identified a major challenge in handing over this work to machines: “the problem with trying to get machines to understand this sort of content, is that it is essentially asking them to understand human culture- a phenomenon too fluid and subtle to be described in simple, machine readable rules.”

Social media managers and community managers are doing intricate and skilled work, reliant upon their judgment and a keen understanding of the brand’s identity and voice. The sooner we acknowledge and affirm that fact, the better they’ll feel as they embark upon the occasional abyss that the internet has become.

Offer breaks

Among the most egregious horrors of the Facebook farms was the “time on task” expected of moderators, even in the wake of seeing traumatic content. “Wellness breaks” were reportedly nine minutes in length, and other breaks were limited to 30 minutes. When these breaks were taken, time away from desks was logged electronically.

But in the world your moderators and social staff live in, more breathing room can be provided- both to facilitate ideation for good content, and to create psychological distance from any challenging or unpleasant information. This should apply to breaks taken over the course of a day, as well as the perceived freedom to take vacation for longer restorative breaks. The time away will ensure their patience, sharpness, and creativity- all qualities we should value in these roles.

Publicize coping options

Even when precautions are taken, negative effects may still take hold. Particularly at peak times around a launch or a publicity crisis, protection from the “tough stuff” may be unavoidable. It’s in these moments that people should know the options they have to cope with the nature of their work. What options are covered by employee health insurance? What programs or offerings can be brought to the office? And how can these options be publicized year-round, rather than at times when stress is most evident or common?

If difficult conditions are a necessary part of the work, it stands to reason that helping to keep these employees restored and at peak capacity should be a key part of the workplace as well. If help is needed, it should be simple to find and non-stigmatizing to take advantage of. By doing so, you create an environment where people can easily and effectively do their best work.

Of the fraught relationship between content moderators and the content that crosses their screens day in and day out, The Verge’s James Vincent said, “the humans tasked with cleaning up the internet’s mess are miserable, and the humans creating that mess aren’t much better off.” And while your social media managers and community managers may not have yet descended to the level of “miserable,” that plight can be avoided. These measures, and others designed to acknowledge their challenging but necessary work, can help.

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