Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, has been named a 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Roberts joins 30 other Carnegie Fellows from across the nation as a recipient of what are often referred to as the “brainy awards” and will receive a $200,000 stipend from the Carnegie Corporation in support of her work.

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program was established with the inaugural class in 2015. The goal of the program is to support scholarship and research that applies fresh perspectives from the humanities and social sciences to pressing issues. The topics focus on a broad range of complex political, economic, technological, humanistic and sociological matters. Roberts was selected along with the other 2018 fellows from among 270 applicants.

“Sarah Roberts is an exploding nova of brilliance and energy. Her selection for a hyper-competitive Carnegie Fellowship is a tribute to her originality and the urgency of her research agenda. Brava, Brava Brava! Professor Roberts,” said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “The Carnegie Corporation has chosen wisely in selecting Sarah as a Carnegie Fellow and the entire GSEIS community salutes her on this important achievement.” 

Roberts’ research focuses on the practices and policies social media and technology companies use to manage online content. Her work has shined a strong light on the commercial content moderation practices of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and its impact on workers engaged in efforts to moderate or remove objectionable content from social media or websites. Examining the thin line of defense against digital age horrors, her groundbreaking research has detailed the labor conditions and mental health impacts on the thousands of workers who toil to remove the obscene, violent and criminal content on the internet. Roberts has also explored social media privacy issues and the implications of internet governance and policy. In 2017, she developed and convened what is believed to be the first national research conference on commercial content moderation, “All Things in Moderation,” which was held at UCLA.

“This award means so much to me as it’s an amazing honor that will directly support and accelerate my research, and further my efforts to share it with others,” Roberts said. “It not only validates at the highest level the importance of commercial content moderation as a social phenomenon with deep cultural and political implications, but it will directly draw attention to the lives of the often unseen human workers who have placed their own health and well-being at risk to make the internet a safer, somewhat saner place for the rest of us. I am especially proud to represent UCLA in this capacity.”

The Carnegie Fellows award will provide critical support for Roberts’ work on “Behind the Screen: Digitally Laboring in Social Media’s Shadow World,” the first comprehensive academic study to focus directly on the work lives of human internet screeners. The monograph has been contracted for publication by Yale University Press. The award funding will provide time and support for Roberts’ research and writing, and further efforts to share the findings with academic audiences and the public.

Roberts joined the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies in 2016. Her research regarding the people and politics of social media has already drawn attention within academia and has generated significant public and policy interest. She has appeared more than 70 times in news outlets such as The New York Times, the Associated Press, Le Monde, The Economist, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, the Washington Post and CNN, and others worldwide. She served as a consultant for and is featured in the documentary film “The Cleaners,” about commercial content moderation in the Phiilipines, and in March 2017, she authored a feature news article based on her research, “Social Media’s Silent Filter,” for The Atlantic magazine.

“From the very first day she was on campus, Sarah has made important contributions to our scholarship at UCLA and to the information fields,” said Jonathan Furner, the chair of the information studies department. “While her work is focused on the cutting-edge issues raised by new media and the internet, her research shares a common and important bond with scholars working to understand how information in all its forms is collected, preserved and accessed, and the implications for individuals, communities and societies. She is a tremendous asset to our department, our university and our field.”

With the support of the Carnegie Fellows award, Roberts’ work will continue to elucidate the people, practices and policies of online content, adding context and information about commercial content moderation and the changing labor norms, globalization and outsourcing trends of the digital world. In doing so, her work will illuminate and influence what content is available to whom, and to whose benefit, raising important questions about the nature of the internet and the risks and opportunities it poses.