Posted in: Tattle, Technology

We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets review – confessions of a content moderator

This Dutch novel takes aim at the depersonalising corrosiveness of the internet, but becomes laboured

When he launched his takeover of Twitter earlier this year, Elon Musk sparked consternation by declaring he would loosen the social media platform’s content moderation policies – a move that could set Twitter on a collision course with the EU’s digital regulators. In an online world rife with offensive and potentially dangerous material – hate speech, harassment, misinformation, incitements to violence, accounts promoting self-harm and eating disorders – the problem of content moderation is becoming ever more vexed. What counts as harmful content? Who gets to decide, and why?

We Had to Remove This Post, the seventh novel by Dutch author Hanna Bervoets and her first to be translated into English, is nothing if not timely. Its young narrator, Kayleigh, has just quit her job as a content moderator with a fictitious big tech subsidiary called Hexa. Her role involved reviewing hundreds of problematic social media posts and deciding, by reference to a complex set of criteria, which ones to take down. This work has wrought havoc on the mental health of her former colleagues, several of whom are bringing a joint lawsuit against the company: one is so paranoid he keeps a stun gun by the bed at night; another “can’t handle loud noises, bright lights, or sudden movement in her peripheral vision”. The novel takes the form of a letter addressed to their lawyer, who has invited Kayleigh to join the legal action.

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