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The panic attacks started after Chloe watched a man die.

She spent the past three and a half weeks in training, trying to harden herself against the daily onslaught of disturbing posts: the hate speech, the violent attacks, the graphic pornography. In a few more days, she will become a full-time Facebook content moderator, or what the company she works for, a professional services vendor named Cognizant, opaquely calls a “process executive.”

For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.SOMEONE IS STABBING HIM, DOZENS OF TIMES, WHILE HE SCREAMS AND BEGS FOR HIS LIFE.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office.

Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me. They are pressured not to discuss the emotional toll that their job takes on them, even with loved ones, leading to increased feelings of isolation and anxiety. To protect them from potential retaliation, both from their employers and from Facebook users, I agreed to use pseudonyms for everyone named in this story except Cognizant’s vice president of operations for business process services, Bob Duncan, and Facebook’s director of global partner vendor management, Mark Davidson.A CONTENT MODERATOR WORKING FOR COGNIZANT IN ARIZONA WILL EARN JUST $28,800 PER YEAR.

Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Moderators in Phoenix will make just $28,800 per year — while the average Facebook employee has a total compensation of $240,000.
  • In stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micro-manage content moderators’ every bathroom break. Two Muslim employees were ordered to stop praying during their nine minutes per day of allotted “wellness time.”
  • Employees can be fired after making just a handful of errors a week, and those who remain live in fear of former colleagues returning to seek vengeance. One man we spoke with started bringing a gun to work to protect himself.
  • Employees have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers, in what one employee describes as “trauma bonding.”
  • Moderators cope with seeing traumatic images and videos by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoking weed during breaks to numb their emotions. Moderators are routinely high at work.
  • Employees are developing PTSD-like symptoms after they leave the company, but are no longer eligible for any support from Facebook or Cognizant.
  • Employees have begun to embrace the fringe viewpoints of the videos and memes that they are supposed to moderate. The Phoenix site is home to a flat Earther and a Holocaust denier. A former employee tells us he no longer believes 9/11 was a terrorist attack.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Chloe cries for a while in the break room, and then in the bathroom, but begins to worry that she is missing too much training. She had been frantic for a job when she applied, as a recent college graduate with no other immediate prospects. When she becomes a full-time moderator, Chloe will make $15 an hour — $4 more than the minimum wage in Arizona, where she lives, and better than she can expect from most retail jobs.

The tears eventually stop coming, and her breathing returns to normal. When she goes back to the training room, one of her peers is discussing another violent video. She sees that a drone is shooting people from the air. Chloe watches the bodies go limp as they die.

She leaves the room again.

Eventually a supervisor finds her in the bathroom, and offers a weak hug. Cognizant makes a counselor available to employees, but only for part of the day, and he has yet to get to work. Chloe waits for him for the better part of an hour.

When the counselor sees her, he explains that she has had a panic attack. He tells her that, when she graduates, she will have more control over the Facebook videos than she had in the training room. You will be able to pause the video, he tells her, or watch it without audio. Focus on your breathing, he says. Make sure you don’t get too caught up in what you’re watching.

”He said not to worry — that I could probably still do the job,” Chloe says. Then she catches herself: “His concern was: don’t worry, you can do the job.”


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