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Filtering the dirt

13 October 2017


THERE is one job so filthy that only a human can do it — and it was the subject of the first in a new series of The Digital Human (Radio 4, Monday of last week).

When it comes to sifting through the pictorial and literary sewer that is the Dark Web, there is no computer yet capable of discrimin­ating be­­tween the levels of offens­ive­ness and degradation that define what is publishable on the internet and what is not.

So it takes battalions of “content moderators” to do it. When they are hired, they know little about the job that they are to be assigned; how could they, for the imagination rarely if ever strays into those realms of depravity, violence, and hatred which they are being asked to police. And, one anonymous person said, none are unaffected by what they see.

“Colin” was employed by an in­­ternet search engine, and assigned to a team dealing with child exploitation. In a day, he would be required to sift through about 1200 images. If even one of these surfaced in the sphere of the internet which most of us inhabit, there would be horror and outrage. But Colin was never regarded by co-workers as a heroic defender of basic human decency: in his Silicon Valley company, he and his sort were welcomed as warmly as you would a janitor who had just been plunging the lavatories.

The ingenious analogy that the presenter, Dr Aleks Krotoski, drew was with the sin-eaters of folklore: people who, for a fee, would consume a ritual meal over the recently deceased, and thus take away their sins. One can only hope that the outlook for Colin, who has left the job but suffers all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, is more promising.

More a moral dietician than a sin-eater, Dr Fatima Akilu’s job is as a counsellor employed to deradicalise Islamic extremists from the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria. Featured in Outlook (World Service, Monday), Dr Akilu trained in New York before returning to her native Nigeria in 2012 to establish a new programme of religious and psychological re-education.

She has had some significant successes: not least the Boko Haram imam who was so inspired by the programme that he has returned to school to engage with just that type of decadent Western education which he had so violently opposed. And just in case Dr Akilu’s enthusi­asm for the job sounds too self-serving, it emerged that she was paying for the imam’s, and his children’s, education out of her own pocket.

For those intent on seeing every revision to the Radio 3 schedule as evidence of dumbing down, the appearance of the In Tune Mixtape (Radio 3, weekdays) will be chalked up as a new low. It is certainly a pretence to claim that these 30-minute sequences of music, unbroken by announcements, are in any meaningful way “specially curated”, but the driving force here looks to be a desire to promote the BBC Music app; are we being prepared for a full BBC-based music-streaming service?

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