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A phone with a lock symbol is seen with a laptop computer with a Facebook login page. Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We know that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and all the other social media platforms "moderate" the content users post, typically aiming to remove material that violates either a host country's law or the platform's own standards.

The big picture: Moderation is usually understood to be the onerous and thankless cleanup task that these social media giants have had to shoulder as they scaled up to global ubiquity. But the choices companies make about what to delete and who to boot are actually central to their identities, argues scholar Tarleton Gillespie in a new book on the subject.

Gillespie's title, "Custodians of the Internet," points to the ambivalence about the labor of content moderation that's shared by platforms and users. "Custodians" are workers responsible for maintenance and cleanup; they're also keepers of a trust, protectors of a person, place, or institution.

Somebody's got to do it: Either way, it's a tough job — and one that the platform companies prefer to keep mostly out of view. That serves their desire to be seen as neutral arbiters of what's fit to post.

  • But it's increasingly untenable in a world where the platforms have become essential public forums, and where their choices affect livelihoods, elections, and even life or death.

Edge cases: Gillespie assembles a rogue's gallery of the toughest challenges in the annals of moderation:

  • The celebrated Vietnam-war news photo of a crying, naked girl running down a road after a napalm attack, which Facebook moderators repeatedly removed for violating the rules against underage nudity.
  • The long-running fight between Facebook and breastfeeding mothers who wished to post photos but ran afoul of a "no nipples" rule.
  • Violent images used in terrorist recruiting pitches are taken down, but similar images in news coverage (or scholarship about terrorism) may then also face censorship.

Both Twitter and Facebook have faced persistent problems by not being strict enough to satisfy users who have been harassed, yet still triggering outrage from other users who feel they've been censored.

To sort out such dilemmas, social networks typically employ several tiers of labor:

  • a small cadre of company employees who set policy and deal with the toughest calls;
  • larger pools of contractors, overseas workers, and gig-economy laborers who process images and posts at punishing speed;
  • and the entire base of users, who end up on volunteer community patrol as they flag objectionable content with a click.

All this work is an after-thought to the social networks, which devote their resources to building products and selling ads. But marginalizing moderation has only helped mire Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social-network business in a swamp of controversy and complaint.

Why it matters: Moderation, the promise that an online space will be managed and made to conform to some set of rules narrower than those that prevail on the open web, isn't a sideshow at all. It's what makes platforms unique, Gillespie argues — different both from publishers who create content and from common-carrier internet service providers who simply transmit it.

The boundaries platforms set on expression are how they distinguish themselves from one another, creating different kinds of spaces with different formal rules and social practices. "Custodians of the Internet" makes a strong case that Facebook and its competitors should start to treat moderation as a defining service rather than a necessary evil.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Sports

Gonzaga University revokes NBA great John Stockton's tickets over mask stance

Former Utah Jazz player John Stockton during a 2017 press conference in Salt Lake City. Photo: Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzaga University suspended the season tickets of notable alumni John Stockton after the NBA Hall of Famer failed to comply with the school's basketball games mask mandate, the Spokesman-Review first reported.

Driving the news: "Basically, it came down to, they were asking me to wear a mask to the games and being a public figure, someone a little bit more visible, I stuck out in the crowd a little bit," the former Utah Jazz point guard told the outlet in an interview Saturday.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

State Department orders evacuation of U.S. diplomats' families from Ukraine

From left, undersecretary for political affairs Victoria Nuland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. chargés d'affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien during a meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Kyiv. Photo: Yevhen Liubimov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The State Department will begin evacuating families and nonessential staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv this week, according to a travel advisory published Sunday evening.

Why it matters: The move underscores U.S. fears that a Russian invasion could destabilize Ukraine and threaten the embassy's ability to assist Americans.

Perfect storm brewing for extreme politicians

Data: Axios research; Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Redistricting and a flood of departing incumbents are paving the way for more extreme candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Driving the news: At least 19 House districts in 12 states are primed to attract such candidates — hard partisans running in strongly partisan districts — according to an Axios analysis of districts as measured by the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI).

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