Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Interviews with Contract Moderators for Facebook Describe PTSD and a Psychologically Debilitating Work Environment

Casey Newton, the Verge:

In February, I wrote about the secret lives of Facebook contractors in America. Since 2016, when the company came under heavy criticism for failing to prevent various abuses of its platform, Facebook has expanded its workforce of people working on safety and security around the world to 30,000. About half of those are content moderators, and the vast majority are contractors hired through a handful of large professional services firms. In 2017, Facebook began opening content moderation sites in American cities including Phoenix, Austin, and Tampa. The goal was to improve the accuracy of moderation decisions by entrusting them to people more familiar with American culture and slang.

Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work, according to a former employee familiar with the matter. But in return for policing the boundaries of free expression on one of the internet’s largest platforms, individual contractors in North America make as little as $28,800 a year. They receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch each day, along with nine minutes per day of “wellness” time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job. After regular exposure to graphic violence and child exploitation, many workers are subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

Newton interviewed twelve Facebook moderators based at Cognizant’s Tampa office for this story, current and former, and even reading the descriptions of what they witnessed were enough to make me reel. I can’t imagine being required to sit through the minimum of fifteen seconds per video that they must view.

When I linked to Newton’s last piece about Cognizant, I wrote that this is a fundamental issue with the design of social networks. Automatic filtering — much of which, by the way, is an illusion — is inaccurate and will likely always be so, but subjecting low-wage contractors to a firehose of the worst of humanity is unconscionable. I’m not sure paying them more would help with the psychological toll, but I certainly wouldn’t argue against a pay bump. Cognizant or Facebook should be providing them with therapy, free of charge and without stigma. But something must change, too, with the very design of platforms like Facebook to make it harder for people to share and glorify disturbing, discriminatory, and abhorrent material.

One more thing from Newton’s article that requires a highlight:

Florida law does not require employers to offer sick leave, and so Cognizant workers who feel ill must instead use personal leave time.

It is a failure of ethics for executives and lawmakers if employees cannot expect time to recover from illness.

Update: Manton Reece:

Social networks like Facebook (and Twitter) are designed to reward the sensational video. The timeline algorithm, “like” counts, and quick re-sharing all contribute to surfacing both the best and worst content. Whatever drives engagement.

Until the tie is cut between engagement and revenue, I don’t think this will be solved. By that, I mean that I don’t think this will be solved — at least not by these incumbents.

See Also: Page 35 of Sarah Jeong’s “The Internet of Garbage” (PDF).