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"An Art Work About the Dark Web, On the Dark Web"


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At the New Yorker website, Daniel Wenger writes the video series “Dark Content” by the artists Eva and Franco Mattes. The series explores the strange and often hidden world of content moderators—low-wage contingent workers hired to remove offensive content from YouTube, Facebook, and other website. As Wenger reports, this content often ends up on the Dark Web, where the Mattes’s have also planted some of their own work. An excerpt:

Your mother, your neighbor, you: anyone can be a moderator, it seems, a job that is, as Franco puts it, “a mix between a cop and a priest and an editor and a politician, all without being visible.” The first three episodes of “Dark Content” were released in the fall, and three more débuted this week, in London. Although the former have made their way on to YouTube, the artists posted them initially on http://5cqzpj5d6ljxqsj7.onion—their site on the Dark Web, where encrypted networks allow users to browse the standard Web anonymously and, on .onion sites, to publish content uncensored. The Dark Web is also where the content deleted by moderators often ends up. To view the artists’ work in its original location, you need only download a Tor browser (which also allows you to navigate around the Great Firewall when you visit China, and to access Cheap Euros and Rent-A-Hacker from anywhere). “The Darknet is largely presented by mainstream media as a marketplace for drugs, weapons, and pornography,” Franco Mattes explained in a recent interview. “But it is also the platform that allowed free speech for activists living in oppressive regimes during the Arab Spring, for example, or the revelations of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.”

The artists, whose work has been shown at MOMA PS1, Performa, and the New Museum, became interested in moderation when they noticed that one of their well-known projects—which had shown in several galleries and museums—had disappeared from YouTube. “No Fun,” from 2010, is a short two-channel film investigating Chatroulette, a site that pairs users randomly for Webcam conversations. On one side of the screen, Franco is seen in a corner of a loft, seeming to hang, lifeless, from the ceiling by a thick cord; on the other side of the screen, his chat partners react to his apparent suicide—with amusement, indifference, occasionally alarm. Who or what, the artists wondered, had deleted the work?

With “Dark Content,” the Mattes couple plays up the confusion and curiosity that surrounds content moderation, exposing the kinks in what Franco calls “the shiny and sanitized version of the Internet we are all familiar with.” In 2014, when Adrian Chen reported on those “employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us,” he was told that the total population of content moderators comes to more than a hundred thousand, which, he noted, was a far greater number than the combined staffs of Google and Facebook. Yet, as the artists found, content moderators tend to maintain a low profile, not only because their employers discourage them from speaking about their work. “I never speak with friends and family about what I do,” a moderator says in the episode titled “I Would Prefer Not to Include My Name.” “It’s a combination between feeling good about what I’m doing, being in a powerful place to prevent other people from having to see terrible things, and having mixed feelings about the power.”

Image: Artists Franco and Eva Mattes. Via New Yorker.