Digital space is both the crime scene and respite.
Remember when a great concern of the zeitgeist was whether playing violent video games would encourage violent behavior?
For over 50 years, intense research was dedicated to deciphering whether violence in the media can predispose viewers to violent behaviors. The 2019 answer (despite people like Trump falsely clinging to the outdated debate) is no; in fact, violent media is more likely to cause crippling trauma than indoctrinate you.
This week, The Verge's Casey Newton recounted interviews with 100 moderators of "violent extremism" on YouTube and Google. Based on testimonies of American-based employees (nevermind the small army of "cleaners" that tech companies amass overseas to exploit cheap labor), the litany of moderators' documented mental health issues range from anxiety and depression to insomnia and other intense PTSD symptoms. And it's no secret to the managers at Google and YouTube. Those who deem themselves to be "the lucky ones" are granted paid leave to address the mental health concerns that have regularly arisen among moderators who are expected to spend full work days viewing footage of child abuse (of both physical and sexual nature), beheadings, mass shootings, and other forms of extreme violence.
The banned content is divided into queues, reports The Verge. From copyright issues, hate speech, and harassment to violent extremism (VE) and adult sexual content, hundreds of moderators are contracted either in-house or through outside companies like an Austin-based outfit called Accenture. Many are immigrants who jumped at the opportunity to work for a major media company like Google. "When we migrated to the USA, our college degrees were not recognized," says a man identified as Michael. "So we just started doing anything. We needed to start working and making money."
Considering there are videos with disturbing content under the guise of Peppa Pig clips in order to slip into kid-friendly digital spaces, moderators do feel a sense of social responsibility and satisfaction for removing dangerous and inappropriate content from the Internet. But, of course, the company's bottom lines don't prioritize a safer digital space, but rather capital and ad revenue. Similar to Amazon's notorious workers' rights abuses, Google has imposed increasingly inhumane and bizarre restrictions on their moderators, from increasing their quotas to banning cell phones and then pens and paper from the floor and limiting time for bathroom breaks. "They treat us very bad," Michael adds. "There's so many ways to abuse you if you're not doing what they like." Michael works for Accenture, where the average pay is $18.50 or about $37,000 a year, but an in-house moderator for Google, a woman identified as Daisy, described her full-time position in the California headquarters as ideal on paper. She earned about $75,000 a year with good benefits, not including a grant of Google stock valuing about $15,000. Ultimately, she left the job with long-lasting PTSD symptoms, because, she said, "Your entire day is looking at bodies on the floor of a theater. Your neurons are just not working the way they usually would. It slows everything down."
Specifically, a moderator's job is to view at least 5 hours of content every day; that's five hours of watching mass shootings, hate speech and harassment, graphic crimes against children as young as three years old, and images of dead bodies as the result of domestic and foreign terrorism (such as ISIS or a man shooting his girlfriend on camera). "You never know when you're going to see the thing you can't unsee until you see it," Newton concludes from her 100 interviews. Some moderators suffered severe mental health effects after a few weeks, while others endured years before they were forced to take leave, quit, or hospitalize themselves.
"Virus" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor
"Every gunshot, every death, he experiences as if it might be real," Newton writes about one moderator's trauma. And that's what it is: trauma in the age of YouTube. While the human condition has been documented to bend under the weight of atrocities since ancient civilizations' records of soldiers committing suicide, the term "posttraumatic stress disorder" was only acknowledged in the 1970s amidst the domestic fallout of the Vietnam War.
Today, studies estimate that 8 million Americans aged 18 and over display symptoms of PTSD, which is about 3.6% of the U.S. adult population. Furthermore, 67% of individuals "exposed to mass violence have been shown to develop PTSD, a higher rate than those exposed to natural disasters or other types of traumatic events," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And the more traumatic events one is exposed to, the higher the risk of developing PTSD symptoms.
When it comes to "secondary" trauma, experiencing mental and emotional distress from exposure to another's experience is generally associated with therapists and social workers. The contagion of secondhand trauma was already known before YouTube began in 2005, and social scientists across the board have concluded that "vicarious traumatization," "secondary traumatic stress (STS)," or "indirect trauma" is a real, clinical effect from graphic media in the news cycle. One study found, in reference to press coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, "Unlike direct exposure to a collective trauma, which can end when the acute phase of the event is over, media exposure keeps the acute stressor active and alive in one's mind. In so doing, repeated media exposure may contribute to the development of trauma-related disorders by prolonging or exacerbating acute trauma-related symptoms."
In the age of increasingly pervasive media coverage and exposure to all varieties of human behavior, secondary trauma is inevitable. Yet, among the general public it's often unacknowledged, or even mocked. Newton recounted, "In therapy, Daisy learned that the declining productivity that frustrated her managers was not her fault. Her therapist had worked with other former content moderators and explained that people respond differently to repeated exposure to disturbing images. Some overeat and gain weight. Some exercise compulsively. Some, like Daisy, experience exhaustion and fatigue."
"All the evil of humanity, just raining in on you," Daisy told Newton. "That's what it felt like — like there was no escape. And then someone [her manager] told you, 'Well, you got to get back in there. Just keep on doing it.'"
"Sorrow and Fire" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor
What constitutes "traumatic" media? The World Health Organization has gone so far as to define "violence" for the international community: "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." With the average U.S. adult spending over 11 hours a day "listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media," a digital user is exposed to real-world violence, global acts of terrorism, intimate partner violence (IPT), and casualties of freak accidents on a daily basis. While streaming entertainment occupies much of that time, radio reaches up to 92% on a weekly basis, while live TV "still accounts for a majority of an adult's media usage, with four hours and 46 minutes being spent with the platform daily," according to Nielson.
The problem with media is no longer as simple as violent video games. What streams in live news reports are increasing incidents of far-right terrorism (up 320% over the past five years) and increasing numbers of casualties. Meanwhile, shootings in the U.S. have intensified in frequency and fatalities, with gun deaths reaching the highest number per capita in more than 20 years (12 gun deaths per 100,000 people).With social media, you can view police shootouts live on Twitter, watch a mass shooter's livestream of his attack, see fatal police brutality caught on tape, or witness someone commit suicide on Facebook.
Who's policing this content? Instagram and Facebook are ostensibly cracking down on their community guidelines by demoting potentially injurious content—or debating before congress the limitations of both free speech and Mark Zuckerberg's latent humanity. As of November 2019, Twitter allows some sensitive material to be placed behind a content warning, provided it serves the purpose "to show what's happening in the world," but bans posts that "have the potential to normalize violence and cause distress to those who view them," including "gratuitous gore," "hateful imagery," "graphic violence" or adult sexual content. What happens after you hit the "report" button? At Google (and its property YouTube), it falls to the underpaid, overworked, and neglected moderators who are denied lunch breaks and vacation time if their queue has a heavy backlog of footage.
But what the Hell are we supposed to do about it? If we stumble across these images—even view some of them in full—do we become culpable for their existence?
We've been fretting over the human condition's ability to withstand traumatic images since the dawn of photography, particularly after photographs of the 20th century's World Wars exposed inhumane suffering to international audiences for the first time. "Photographs of mutilated bodies certainly can be used...to vivify the condemnation of war," writes Susan Sontag in 2003's Regarding the Pain of Others, "and may bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all." She also notes, "The photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore." In contrast, photographer Ariella Azoulay challenges Sontag when she examines the fundamental power relations between viewer and object in her book, The Civil Contract of Photography, wherein she argues that a violent photograph demands that the viewer respond to the suffering depicted. If the role of a photograph is "creating the visual space for politics," then how much more does a moving image demand of us? Clicking the "report" button on Twitter? Writing to our congresspeople? Taking to the streets and rioting?
In her longform essay, Sontag wrote: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do–but who is that 'we'?–and nothing 'they' can do either– and who are 'they'–then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic."
"This Life Will Tear You Apart" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor
Ultimately, Google's failure to properly respect and support the mental health of its content moderators reflects an American problem of exceptionalism and subsequent drive to optimize at all costs. What drives the average American to filter the world through their screens for half of their day is stress over keeping up with trends and current events, being the most productive, and then escaping those anxieties in their downtime: Digital space–the realm of the image–is both the crime scene and the respite. The injustice calling us to action—whether in the form of boycotts or Twitter rants—is the fact that media is being regulated by a small cohort of billion-dollar companies with little to no regard for actual human life. Governments expect tech companies to police their own services with no outside oversight, while Google, a company that made $136.22 billion in 2018, is "just now beginning to dabble in these minor, technology-based interventions, years after employees began to report diagnoses of PTSD to their managers," according to Newton.
"It sounds to me like this is not a you problem, this is a them problem," is what Daisy's therapist told her. "They are in charge of this. They created this job. They should be able to … put resources into making this job, which is never going to be easy — but at least minimize these effects as much as possible." As of this week, they're putting (minimal) effort into that. Google researchers are experimenting with using technological tools to ease moderators' emotional and mental distress from watching the Internet's most violent and abusive acts on a daily basis: They're thinking of blurring out faces, editing videos into black and white, or changing the color of blood to green–which is fitting: blood the color of money.
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Don't act like you didn't watch it.
After seeing the horrendous first trailer, some of us hoped that Cats would reconsider its decision to feature eerily realistic and yet incredibly uncanny cat-human hybrids.
This has not happened. The cats in the latest trailer are mostly buff, large-breasted, and endowed with human features and very feline fur. They look like something out of the worst acid trip of all time.
Overall, the new trailer is like Alice in Wonderland if it were redesigned by the corporate overlords in Sorry to Bother You. If their appearances weren't odd enough, there's the fact that—as The Cut smartly pointed out—the cats appear to be different sizes in almost every frame. They must've taken whatever pill Jefferson Airplane is talking about in "White Rabbit," because they're sometimes very large and sometimes very small.
Then there are the psychedelic colors, the swirling shots pieced together like the rough cut of a montage for a Tame Impala video, and the endlessly cheesy one-liners.
Honestly, the cats in Cats would have been so much easier to look at if someone had made the decision to use regular costumes instead of whatever CGI they're trying out.
On the other hand, Cats itself is a bizarre and strange musical that does feature humanoid cat-dancers. Iit's supposed to be disorienting and dreamlike, and it's predicated on the suspension of belief. Based on a series of poems by T. S. Eliot, it's an abstract and nonsensical show about a colony of wild cats that dance and sing their way through an unruly haze of cat parties, nostalgia, and magic, for God's sake.
But the musical is mostly noteworthy for its extraordinary dancing and its charming music; the rest is fluff. On the other hand, it seems that the movie will mostly rely on the star power of its very famous cast, which includes James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Dame Judi Dench, and Jason Derulo, all of whom somehow agreed to having their faces and body shapes coated in CGI fur suits. Maybe the fact that these people are so famous and familiar is part of what makes the preview look so peculiar. It's as if our cultural avatars have been filtered through a bad photoshop job or ingested a couple of nasty chemicals from the MK-Ultra era; strangers would've been easier to bear.
On the other hand, maybe Cats is what we as a collective society deserve and need. After all, it's not like we live in a logical world. Today, in the era of social media, streaming, and endless TikTok loops, it takes something absolutely absurd to grab our attention for longer than a 24-hour news cycle, and by proxy, media is becoming more bizarre, more psychedelic, and more outlandishly self-referential. Maybe Cats' oddness is just a roundabout marketing scheme.
Regardless, the real world often seems as topsy-turvy and plotless as the Cats trailer. So, keep dancing away under the Jellicle moon, cat-humans; we'll be watching in blissful horror, and lapping up every frame.
Cats – Official Trailer | MTV Movies www.youtube.com
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The magazine put out an ill-advised campaign that proclaimed "Black is back."
ELLE Germany has come under fire for a new editorial campaign called "Black Is Back," which was offensive from start to finish.
The first problem begins with the ill-advised title, which seems to imply that blackness is a new trend, something that can be put on and taken off.
That wasn't all. The editorial used a photo of a model named Naomi Chin Wing with a caption that referred to a model named Janaye Furman. To add insult to injury, an issue called "Back to Black" of course features a white model on the cover.
Naomi Campbell lashed out at that, posting the caption, "This makes me so sad to see this, @bethannhardison @the_real_iman and I are here if you are not clear on the guidelines of diversity," Campbell writes. "Your mistake is highly insulting in every way ... I've said countless times we are not a TREND. We are here to STAY." She continues, "I too in my career have seen pictures of others models called me just because of the color of our skin, and recently seen many pictures of models of color being called being @adutakech... do you know what it feels like to do the job (@naomichinwing) and not even be given the right name credit?"
Adut Akech, a model who recently faced a similar issue—a photo of a different model was used in an interview with her—also commented, "SO SICKENING!! I'm over it honestly."
For her part, Janaye Furman posted herself sipping tea with the caption #blackisback.
The magazine's actions were first called out by the account Diet Prada on Instagram, which reports fashion industry missteps.
ELLE Germany responded with an Instagram post of their own. "This obviously was not our intention and we regret not being more sensitive to the possible misinterpretations. Misidentifying the model Naomi Chin Wing as Janaye Furman is a further error for which we apologize. We are aware of how problematic this is. This has definitely been a learning experience for us and, again, we deeply regret any harm or hurt we have unwittingly caused," it read.
Though this campaign is particularly riddled with missteps, this is far from an isolated incident. The fact that fashion magazines seem to have such poor sensitivity towards race reveals a chronic lack of diversity in higher-up editorial positions, and a lack of care and sensitivity in general. We can call-out publications for their mistakes all we want, but what we really should be calling for is an increase in diversity in all spheres of the media industry.
As one commenter wrote on ELLE Germany's Instagram post, "Perhaps if you had people of colour on your team (whose opinion you value), it may perhaps be an opportunity to make better executive decisions?"
Surface-level representation means nothing if it doesn't use input from the actual group that's being represented, and too often, diversity is used as a performance, something used to sell products. This is a problem that extends to the whole magazine and media industry. A 2018 study from The Guardian reveals that of the 214 bestselling magazine covers published in the UK last year, only 14 of them featured people of color on the front. The issue extends to children's magazines, meaning that so many kids still aren't seeing themselves represented in positions of power. While magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair have made efforts to prioritize diversity, it isn't enough.
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