Facebook moderators break their NDAs to expose desperate working conditions

Jun 19, 2019 by

 

Utley loved to help.

First, he served in the Coast Guard, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. He married, had a family, and devoted himself utterly to his two little girls. After he got out of the military, he worked as a moderator for Facebook, where he purged the social network of the worst stuff that its users post on a daily basis: the hate speech, the murders, the child pornography.

Utley worked the overnight shift at a Facebook content moderation site in Tampa, FL, operated by a professional services vendor named Cognizant. The 800 or so workers there face relentless pressure from their bosses to better enforce the social network’s community standards, which receive near-daily updates that leave its contractor workforce in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The Tampa site has routinely failed to meet the 98 percent “accuracy” target set by Facebook. In fact, with a score that has been hovering around 92, it is Facebook’s worst-performing site in North America.

The stress of the job weighed on Utley, according to his former co-workers, who, like all Facebook contractors at the Tampa site, must sign a 14-page nondisclosure agreement.

“The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly,” one of Utley’s managers told me. “I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired.”

On the night of March 9th, 2018, Utley slumped over at his desk. Co-workers noticed that he was in distress when he began sliding out of his chair. Two of them began to perform CPR, but no defibrillator was available in the building. A manager called for an ambulance.

The Cognizant site in Tampa is set back from the main road in an office park, and between the dim nighttime lighting and discreet exterior signage, the ambulance appears to have had trouble finding the building. Paramedics arrived 13 minutes after the first call, one worker told me, and when they did, Utley had already begun to turn blue.

Paramedics raced Utley to a hospital. At Cognizant, some employees were distraught — one person told me he passed by one of the site’s designated “tranquility rooms” and found one of his co-workers, a part-time preacher, praying loudly in tongues. Others ignored the commotion entirely, and continued to moderate Facebook posts as the paramedics worked.

Utley was pronounced dead a short while later at the hospital, the victim of a heart attack. Further information about his health history, or the circumstances of his death, could not be learned. He left behind a wife, Joni, and two young daughters. He was 42 years old.

On Monday morning, workers on the day shift were informed that there had been an incident, and they began collecting money to buy a card and send flowers. But some site leaders did not initially tell workers that Utley had died, and instructed managers not to discuss his death, current and former employees told me.

“Everyone at leadership was telling people he was fine — ‘oh, he’ll be okay,’” one co-worker recalled. “They wanted to play it down. I think they were worried about people quitting with the emotional impact it would have.”

But the illusion shattered later that day, when Utley’s father, Ralph, came to the site to gather his belongings. He walked into the building and, according to a co-worker I spoke to, said: “My son died here.”

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.

My initial report focused on Phoenix, where workers told me that they had begun to embrace fringe views after continuously being exposed to conspiracy theories at work. One brought a gun to work to protect himself against the possibility of a fired employee returning to the office seeking vengeance. Others told me they are haunted by visions of the images and videos they saw during their time on the job.

Conditions at the Phoenix site have not improved significantly since I visited. Last week, some employees were sent home after an infestation of bed bugs was discovered in the office — the second time bed bugs have been found there this year. Employees who contacted me worried that the infestation would spread to their own homes, and said managers told them Cognizant would not pay to clean their homes.

“Bed bugs can be found virtually every place people tend to gather, including the workplace,” Cognizant said in a statement. “No associate at this facility has formally asked the company to treat an infestation in their home. If someone did make such a request, management would work with them to find a solution.”

Source: Facebook moderators break their NDAs to expose desperate working conditions – The Verge

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