Facebook moderators working conditions worse than previously reported
Image: Quentin Sokolow / The Burn-In

On Wednesday, The Verge published a bombshell article examining the lives of Facebook content moderators. In speaking with 12 current and former employees of contracted “process executives,” the site found their working conditions were even worse than reported back in February. Indeed, the post indicates moderating content for the world’s largest social network is detrimental to workers’ physical and mental health.

Died at his Desk

Four months ago, The Verge published a report on the working conditions at a Facebook moderation site located in Phoenix, Arizona. An internet technology services firm called Cognizant maintains the facility as part of a $200 million contract with the social network. Though harrowing, The Verge didn’t get a complete picture of the job because Cognizant’s contracts were bound by nondisclosure agreements (NDAs).

The site’s new report includes interviews with 12 contractors who violated their 14-page NDA to speak out. The updated account offers further details that paint an even darker picture of Facebook content moderation. It’s most damning allegation? Enforcing the social network’s community standards may have killed a man.

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The contractor in question was former Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Keith Utley. An overnight worker at a Tampa-based site, Utley faced immense pressure to perform. Facebook demanded Cognizant’s centers filter out harmful content with an accuracy rate of 98 percent. During Utley’s time there, the Tampa site’s rating hovered at 92 percent. As such, it was the platform’s worst-performing North American content moderation hub.

One Cognizant manager told The Verge the firm caused Utley to experience an “unworldly” amount of stress.

On March 19, 2018, Utley slid out of his chair unresponsive. Two of his coworkers performed on-site CPR, but it was ineffective. The Coast Guardsman was transported to a local hospital by paramedics and was pronounced dead due to a heart attack. Following Utley’s death, Cognizant’s managers allegedly worked to keep news of their contractor’s untimely passing from spreading.

‘A Sweatshop in America’

While Utley’s case was unique, many Facebook contractors said the Tampa facility had horrific working conditions. Michelle Bennetti, who began moderating content for Cognizant in June 2018, said her job caused her to become depressed. Another staffer named Melynda Johnson said she frequently found the firm’s lone bathroom smeared with bodily waste.

Cognizant said it has janitors available at the facility during every shift. But Johnson, who quit her job in March, cast doubt on that claim. She described the Tampa site thusly, “It’s a sweatshop in America.”

Other workers also complained about the unhygienic condition of the site’s workstations. Facility staffers told The Verge they often came to work and found desks littered with human detritus. Moreover, the moderators explained their workspace was only cleaned when Facebook representatives made scheduled visits.

Another anonymous Tampa contractor identified as “Lola” told the publication that Cognizant had an inhumane wellness policy. Due to an illness, one worker frequently had to use the restroom. Because the company terminates staffers who exhaust their sick leave but still need more time off, Lola worked while ill. Once Lola burned through her allotted bathroom breaks, a manager provided her with a trashcan she could vomit into.

Shawn Speagle, a former Cognizant contractor with a history of anxiety, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after working at the Tampa site. He joined the firm because it offered a salary of $15 an hour and advancement opportunities. However, the then-23-year-old found the position wasn’t worth it. He told The Verge that watching horrific organ harvesting videos all day caused him to become irritable and depressed.

During one particularly arduous shift, Speagle was provided with Lego sets to relieve his stress. The company’s wellness treatment proved ineffective, and he was later let go in a mass layoff last October.

Facebook has No Answers

When The Verge’s first Facebook content moderator exposé went live, the corporation took action to address the situation. In May, the social network announced it would be raising moderator pay by $3 and mandating that its service providers make on-site counseling available. However, the company still doesn’t have a solution to improve its contractors’ health and wellness meaningfully.

Arun Chandra, a Facebook vice president in charge of workforce efficiency, acknowledged the perils of content moderation but didn’t offer any remedies. He told The Verge the company would organize more surprise inspections of its service providers’ facilities. He also said the firm would adopt a multifaceted scorecard approach toward rating moderation site performance that will include a metric for staffer well-being. But the executive conceded his employer’s ability to affect change is limited.

“We’ll never solve 100 percent, but I’m trying to show I can solve 80 to 90 percent of the larger problems,” said Chandra.

Facebook’s global resiliency lead, Chris Harrison, told The Verge his firm is working on mitigating the psychological impact of screening harmful content. He said the corporation has developed tools that blur out faces in violent videos, render them in greyscale, and mute their audio. He further noted the company is looking into potentially limiting the amount of disturbing content its moderators view per day.

However, Harrison also said Facebook is unlikely to provide post-employment counseling for its moderators. “Of course we should do that,” he said. “There’s just so many layers of complexity globally. It’s really, really hard to pull it off in a legally compliant way.”

As human and artificial intelligence video screening has proven problematic, the corporation might want to investigate an idea suggested by one of its former moderators.

“I think Facebook needs to shut down,” said Shawn Speagle.

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