A New Psychological Thriller Explores the Grim Underbelly of Life as a Social Media Moderator

WE HAD TO REMOVE THIS POST, by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault

Hanna Bervoets’s slim, potent new novel, “We Had to Remove This Post,” appears at first to be the story of a tech workplace gone terribly awry, but it quickly shape-shifts into something more surprising and enigmatic.

Widely acclaimed in the Netherlands, Bervoets is the author of nine books and was recently awarded the Frans Kellendonk Prize for her body of work. This is Bervoets’s first novel to be translated – by Emma Rault – into English.

Kayleigh is a new “quality assurance worker” at the social media company Hexa. The job means that for hours on end, Kayleigh and her co-workers must review posts that contain racial violence, self-mutilation and animal cruelty in order to determine if they violate Hexa policies. “On the first day of training, a series of text-only posts appeared on our screens, and then, from day three, photos, videos and livestreams. Each time, the question was: Is it OK to leave this up on the platform? And if not, why not? ” The work turns out to be gruesome and unrelenting. Hexa employees are expected to work at a merciless pace, and warnings are issued if accuracy scores dip.

The novel takes the form of a confessional, written by Kayleigh to Mr. Stitic, a lawyer who is now representing her former colleagues in a lawsuit. This premise is laced with suspense: What exactly went on at Hexa, and why is Kayleigh refusing to join the lawsuit?

Kayleigh’s account elucidates the psychological fallout of content moderation. One day, the moderators notice a man on an opposite rooftop and assume he is a suicide risk. In the end, he turns out to be a construction worker, there to repair the roof, but before Kayleigh realizes that, while she still believes he may jump, she wonders whether a video of the man’s death would be permitted online, demonstrating how the moderators are being trained to break the unspeakable down into data points – and how adept Kayleigh has become at operating within this dehumanizing framework.

The brutal working conditions encourage in-the-trenches bonding between Kayleigh and her colleagues. She embarks on a romantic relationship with a co-worker, Sigrid, and for a moment it seems as though life at Hexa might have its upsides.

Before long, though, rifts open within the group. Sigrid is haunted by frightening dreams. One co-worker, Robert, sees a video of a man playing with two dead kittens and struggles to decide if the video qualifies as “graphic animal cruelty” because it did not show the man actually killing the kittens; eventually he quits. Another co-worker begins espousing flat-earth theories and then falls in with a group of Holocaust deniers. When Sigrid sticks up for them, Kayleigh wonders if Sigrid always harbored such noxious beliefs, or if internet conspiracy theories are acting as a kind of contagion.

Kayleigh’s own response to what she experiences as a moderator turns out to be just as troubling – and even more interesting. The dissociative quality that the work requires seems to come naturally to her, and a late-in-the-game confrontation with Sigrid suggests that Kayleigh has been perpetuating harmful acts of her own, destabilizing the reliability of her account.

Hexa itself is a familiar villain, and it behaves in ways that anyone versed in the evils of tech companies are likely to expect. At times, I wondered if Hexa would be even more menacing if there was more genuine provocation to be found between its walls, more strangeness and surprise. In the end, Hexa functions most effectively as a backdrop for the psychological drama of the characters – and this is where Bervoets shines. Kayleigh is equal parts intriguing and frustrating, at once confessional and withholding, and her account is akin to the story of the man on the rooftop – what is the level of danger? As we spend more and more time in the trick mirror of the internet, how can we know what or whom to believe?

Laura van den Berg is the author of five works of fiction, most recently the story collection “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.”

WE HAD TO REMOVE THIS POST, by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault | 138 pp. | Harper | $ 22.99