For years, reports have emerged detailing the toll moderating online content takes on those tasked with cleaning up the websites of the most powerful tech companies. Facebook announced in May that it would make some changes so that a chunk of this moderator workforce (though not all of it) would be paid a little more and given a little extra care, but a damning new report indicates that these piecemeal changes are mere band-aids for what’s described as a severely distressing work environment.
The report, published by the Verge on Wednesday, details the working conditions of content moderators at a site in Tampa, Florida. It’s operated by Cognisant, a professional services company that agreed to a two-year, $US200 ($292) million contract with Facebook to helm these efforts, a former employee
“At first it didn’t bother me — but after a while, it started taking a toll,” Michelle Bennetti, a former contractor at the Tampa office, told the Verge. “I got to feel, like, a cloud — a darkness — over me. I started being depressed. I’m a very happy, outgoing person, and I was [becoming] withdrawn. My anxiety went up. It was hard to get through it every day. It started affecting my home life.”
The details in the report are, at best, a grim account of the dirty and chaotic conditions of the workplace and at worst a disturbing insight into the psychological toll of the job.
Contractors told the Verge that they found “boogers, fingernails, and pubic hairs, among other items” on their shared desks when they arrived for their shifts. The office would be thoroughly cleaned ahead of visits from Facebook.
“Every bit of that building was absolutely disgusting,” a former employee told the Verge. “You’d go in the bathroom and there would be period blood and poop all over the place. It smelled horrendous all the time.” She also characterised the workplace as “a sweatshop in America.”
In a Facebook Live stream, one employee reportedly said that he wanted to “bash a manager’s head in,” and received no disciplinary action because another manager characterised the comment as a joke. Another employee threatened to “shoot up the building” in a group chat. The company let him come back after a paid leave, and he was only fired after a second similar threat was made.
The report details the ways in which the gruelling structure and rules placed on workers forced them to work sick so they didn’t risk losing their jobs. Contractors for Facebook reportedly have to report via a browser extension whenever they use the bathroom, only given a certain number of breaks.
The fear of being let go also was hardly unwarranted—“red bag days” is reportedly a commonly understood term among workers to mean days where managers fire employees. They are given red bags to put their things in.
“We work with our content review partners to provide a level of support and compensation that leads the industry,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. “There will inevitably be employee challenges or dissatisfaction that call our commitment to this work and our partners’ employees into question. When the circumstances warrant action on the part of management, we make sure it happens.”
What’s clear from this report is that Facebook has ignored the hellish working conditions endured by a massive part of its workforce. These workers, by the way, are responsible for one of the most vital chores of maintaining Facebook: Making sure the most heinous postings are taken down. Facebook’s salary and benefits improvement this year does indicate that the company at the very least responds to bad press, but the incremental improvements for contractors like those in Tampa aren’t enough to keep workers happy, healthy, and safe.
Throwing more moderators at the problem might help catch a few more horrifyingly violent or inappropriate videos from slipping through the cracks, but in the absence of a fair and protected workforce, it sacrifices the wellbeing of these contractors for the company’s bottom line.