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Trust and safety – the most important tech job you’ve never heard of


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RECENTLY I was at a conference full of tech nerds and policy wonks, when I saw an old colleague wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a unicorn and a dinosaur. A banner beneath the two beasts read “Trust & Safety”, as if these basic values were mythological and extinct. It was the kind of cute-but-bitter meme that only makes sense if you are deeply enmeshed in one of the tech industry’s latest backroom roles: an amalgamation of security, privacy and user experience design, all crammed into one job called trust and safety.

Though people in tech companies have been doing trust and safety work for a long time, the phrase has gained currency in the media with the rise of propaganda and organised harassment online. Who do you call when shadowy forces start posting misinformation on your social media platform? Trust and safety. What about when someone steals all your customers’ private data and dumps it in an online forum? How about when your users harass each other, engage in fraud or post revenge porn? You’re getting the picture.

After Elon Musk transformed X/Twitter, one of the first things he did was to nearly eliminate its trust and safety team. Very quickly, users were inundated with spam, harassment, misinformation and other intrusions into their feeds. Over the next few months, the situation became an economic nightmare. People no longer trusted the brand; it didn’t feel safe. And that meant advertisers pulled out in droves, tanking a major source of revenue. It was a disaster caused by technical, design and money problems.

That is why people who work in trust and safety run the gamut of skills, from computer security professionals and interface designers, to brand managers and community ambassadors. They protect organisations from bad actors, including spammers and terrorists – but they also maintain brand integrity for investors. And yeah, nobody outside the field fully understands what they do and why it is important, so trust and safety teams often get laid off before everybody else when a company is downsizing.

There are some counter-examples, however. You might not remember this, but YouTube comments used to be absolute garbage. No matter what the video, whether it featured a cute cat or a conspiracy influencer, the comment section would be a stack of barely coherent insults, racial epithets, sexual slurs and links to scams. And then YouTube invested in a series of improvements, including a simple pop-up asking users to be sure their comments met community guidelines before posting. It isn’t as if YouTube comments are perfect now, but they are often funny and helpful, and the incoherent blurting is definitely less common.

Trust and safety teams were especially important during recent election cycles in the US. Teams of researchers both in and outside tech platforms worked to take down misinformation about elections, such as where polling places were and when the polls closed. Occasionally they worked with election officials to correct the record, so that citizens knew when and where to vote.

The problem is that when trust and safety are done well, we don’t notice. It is rare for somebody to say: “Oh hey, I didn’t get harassed or spammed today!” Or: “Gee, it sure was easy to pick a secure password on this site!” Same goes for misinformation. Nobody jumps for joy when Facebook posts are full of accurate details about where to vote. Most of us assume our products will be trustworthy and safe.

This lack of recognition is partly a result of the “just-world fallacy“, a cognitive bias that fools many of us into thinking the world is basically fair and that bad things happen to those who deserve it.

If somebody is being harassed on X, this fallacy leads us to believe that it is something the victim did, not a design flaw in the social media platform where they hang out. Likewise, if somebody’s account on a site is hacked, the just world fallacy suggests the victim must have done something sloppy with their account – it couldn’t possibly be that their favourite app handles password security poorly. This bias makes it particularly hard for us to appreciate the potential existence of systemic problems like the ones covered by trust and safety.

Even if we don’t fall prey to such cognitive bias, we may not realise the many ways that products can be unsafe because we aren’t privy to all the backend technical details. Often, our experience of inputting a password is the same, regardless of how carefully it is protected. And this is a huge problem. It means that the people who specialise in the stuff we need most are the ones whose jobs we appreciate the least.

Put another way, we don’t appreciate trust and safety when they work, but we sure as heck miss them when they are gone.

Annalee’s week

What I’m reading

The Age of Insecurity, by Astra Taylor, a brilliant essay collection about why it feels like we’re all walking off a cliff.

What I’m watching

Scavengers Reign, an animated series about a crew shipwrecked on a planet so alien it will blow your mind.

What I’m working on

A TED talk about why escapist stories are good for you.

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author. Their latest novel is The Terraformers and they are the co-host of the Hugo-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow them @annaleen and their website is techsploitation.com

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