5 min read

What Trust & Safety research could do better

A new paper looks at why there's a disconnect between peer-reviewed scholarship and on-the-ground T&S practice

I'm Alice Hunsberger. Trust & Safety Insider is my weekly rundown on the topics, industry trends and workplace strategies that T&S professionals need to know about to do their job. Thanks to Grady, Katie, Matt, Jen, Jenny, Gabe, Terry, Tim, Jeff, Sahar and Cathryn (phew!) for their feedback on early versions of this newsletter and to everyone that signed up over the last few days.

This week, I'm thinking about:

  • The academic theory of T&S doesn't translate into reality
  • Resources for finding a job that aligns with your values

Get in touch if you'd like your questions answered or just want to share your feedback on the first edition of Trust & Safety Insider. Here we go! — Alice

Mind the scholarship gap

Why this matters: Academic papers on T&S can offer insights, but lack crucial context. T&S practitioners can still learn from them, but should understand their limitations. Unfortunately, the two groups often aren't communicating at all.

When I worked for Grindr, I did a web search for user sentiment around some particularly thorny T&S issues. Surprisingly, during my search I found a fairly recent academic paper which had interviewed Grindr users about these exact issues. The author of the paper had never reached out to me (or anyone else at Grindr) about their findings. I assume they hadn't considered that there were people inside the company who were thinking deeply about these topics and might genuinely have wanted to know what users were saying.

Luckily, this story ends happily: I reached out to the scholar myself and, as a result, their insights and recommendations were incorporated into a project that my team was working on at the time. However, that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't serendipitously come across the paper during a spur-of-the-moment web search.

It seems like this gap isn't just something I've experienced. A new paper in the latest edition of the Journal of Online Trust and Safety — "Bridging Theory & Practice: Examining the State of Scholarship Using the History of Trust and Safety Archive" by Megan Knittel and Amanda Menking — argues that there is a ceiling as to what T&S professionals currently learn from academic research.

Knittel and Menking conducted a literature review of over 1,300 papers in The Trust and Safety Foundation's History of Trust & Safety Archive and found that:

  • Scholars almost exclusively have an "outsider" perspective, using public content or user interviews as the basis of their studies, as they don't have access to the wealth of private content (such as DMs) or content that had automatically been removed at the point of posting.
  • Research often relies on small qualitative studies (20-30 people) and are fixed in time, getting quickly out of date, as T&S in practice evolves very quickly. (And yes, the study on the company I worked for was definitely in this category).
  • By not having "insider" context and information, the studies are much less informed and relevant for practical application.
  • Recommendations are often made without consulting T&S professionals.

The thing that particularly irks me, and which shows the distance between scholars and practitioners, is that researchers almost exclusively refer to Trust and Safety work as "content moderation". T&S, as most of you will know, includes content moderation, but also a much broader set of enforcement actions (against both actors and behaviours) as well as proactive work in policy, product, and engineering. Referring to it as "content moderation" misses the point.

I'm sure scholars are constantly stymied at the lack of data access for their research, which is obviously important for the industry to progress. However, it's frustrating on the practitioner side to see your work be criticised without important context.

My ask to researchers and scholars is simple: reach out to Trust and Safety professionals. Doing so will mean that you will have a better understanding of the context around issues and a better chance that your research findings will be put into practice in the real-world. That, if done well, is more likely to lead to meaningful access to data. So it's a virtuous circle.

And if you're a T&S practitioner: maybe try searching "[your company] + [T&S issue] + academic paper" (or look through the History of T&S Archive) and see what happens!

Read more: Issue 7 of the Journal of Online Trust & Safety

You ask, I answer

Send me your questions — or things you need help to think through — and I'll answer them in an upcoming edition of T&S Insider, only with Everything in Moderation*

Get in touch

Job hunt

With thousands of layoffs in the T&S industry, and hundreds of new jobs being posted in 2024 so far, it can be difficult to know how to approach a job search. I have just started a new job myself, so I am well aware of how difficult the hiring landscape is at the moment. So here are some resources to help you out:

  • Steph Lundberg, who writes an excellent Customer Support newsletter called Support Human, recently created Bad Job Bingo, a playable checklist of job post clichés and red flags for Support and T&S jobs. It's fun and helpful.
  • If you need help finding job postings, I created a T&S resources page (alicelinks.com) that lists all the job listing boards that I know of for our industry (just click on "job boards" at the top). There are tons of new jobs being added every day, and multiple dedicated boards for Trust and Safety.
  • And if you're a hiring manager, consider this brilliant suggestion from LinkedIn: if you're conducting interviews via online video, post the text of your questions in the chat after you ask them. This simple act gives candidates something concrete to read and focus on while they're trying to formulate their answer. It can make a big difference for people with ADHD, but I can see it being helpful across the board.

Also worth reading

The business of keeping the internet safe (JooHoo Yeo, LinkedIn)
Why? A comprehensive look at the growing opportunities of B2B T&S companies, as well as recommendations for success: invest in community, look to scalable tech, prepare for questions from CFOs in advance.

The DSA is live!.. So how are companies adapting? (Integrity Institute)
Why? This article started as me thinking out loud during a conversation with Nima Mozhgani, and he took it and ran with it! We looked at what midsize companies are doing to comply with the Digital Services Act.

Bring Human Values to AI (Harvard Business Review)
Why? A practical framework for aligning AI with human values: define values, write them into the program, assess tradeoffs, align with partner's values, ensure human feedback, and prepare for surprises. This can easily apply to Trust and Safety policy and product launches broadly outside of AI.

Women of Impact: Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble (InStyle)
Why? A great essay about Dr. Noble, whose work on technology and human rights reminds us to to hold onto our humanity. It's littered with interesting quotes and anecdotes, including this one which is appropriate for the beginning of Women's History Month:

"Noble jokes that she used to need a T-shirt that said, 'Men shout at me at conferences' because men used to tell her coding is math, which can’t be racist or sexist."

Editor's note: an earlier version of the newsletter said the the research was produced by the Trust and Safety Professional Association (TSPA), rather than the Trust and Safety Foundation (TSF).