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.
Bervoets’s narrator laments the oppressive working conditions at Hexa and the lack of mental health support for a workforce routinely exposed to upsetting material. She gives us a glimpse of the definitional problems content moderators have to grapple with: for example, does a video featuring two dead kittens count as animal cruelty, if they’re already dead at the start of the clip? Kayleigh and her co-workers become increasingly jaded and jittery as their nerves are frayed from watching so much violent content: the gunfire sound effects on her friend’s console game “gave me a tight feeling in my chest”; the sight of a construction worker on the rooftop of an adjacent building prompts a panic among the Hexa staff, who wrongly assume he’s about to jump.
This storyline is interwoven with a somewhat pulpy account of Kayleigh’s romantic life. First up is Barbara, who breaks her heart by unilaterally inviting a third woman into their relationship. Next there’s Yena, emotionally withholding and manipulative, whose insecurity about her physical appearance prompts a trite epiphany: “I began to realize it wasn’t me that was the problem. It was the beauty standards society imposed on us, self-loathing and abandonment going back to childhood …” Then comes Sigrid, an older colleague who “mainly just looked very cool in her tight leather jacket”; Kayleigh offloads to her about the guilt she still feels over the death of her hamster when she was 10 – “it felt as if I was letting her into the basement of my soul”. A workplace edict banning “sex acts in and around the building” gives their affair a brief fillip – they start getting it on in a stationery cupboard – before things head south.
The theme that connects these parallel narratives is the unreliability of subjective interpretation: in iffy relationship dynamics, as with dubious online content, context and perspective are key, and things aren’t always as they appear. The point is neatly driven home in the novel’s shocking denouement, but by that stage the topical hook has become labored to the point of exhaustion: one of Kayleigh’s pals has revealed himself to be a flat Earther, and a Jewish character has argued with some anti-Semites about George Soros. The dialogue in these passages is particularly limp and telegraphed.
Other writers have explored similar terrain with greater subtlety. Heike Geissler’s 2018 novelistic memoir, Seasonal Associate, written from the perspective of an Amazon employee, delved more deeply into his narrator’s psyche to dissect the ethical and political implications of his position within the tech industry. We Had to Remove This Post, meanwhile, offers little in the way of psychological acuity. It’s a pity because the novel’s central conceit – the idea of viewing interpersonal relationships through the same prism as online video nasties – is genuinely intriguing.