In what’s becoming a depressing genre, The Wall Street Journal published a story today profiling the very human moderators who prevent the internet from becoming a completely murder-filled terror and abuse machine. Usually hired as contractors, these workers do the dirty work of reviewing flagged posts for internet giants, spending their days plugged into a non-stop feed of graphic violence, child pornography, animal abuse, and terrorism. In return, they say they’re often left with lasting psychological damage, including PTSD, for low wages and limited counseling—if they’re given any healthcare resources at all.
“The first disturbing thing was just burnout, like I’ve literally been staring at porn all day and I can’t see a human body as anything except a possible [terms of service] violation,” one former Google moderator told the Journal. “The worst part is knowing some of this happened to real people.”
For tech companies trying to protect their users from the constant flood of abuse and horror, easy answers aren’t forthcoming. In response to increased public scrutiny about content on their platforms, both YouTube and Facebook announced this year that they plan to hire thousands more moderators to sacrifice their minds for our collective sins. And companies like Microsoft and Google have been bullish about the content moderation possibilities of artificial intelligence, but machine learning has yet to show it can reliably distinguish pornography from pictures of deserts, much less tell the difference between a Pulitzer-winning photograph and an image of child abuse.
For bloggers, however, easy answers are our stock-in-trade, which is why I can confidently state that drafting tech executives into moderating their own sites is the best solution to this complex problem. Either by cultural norm or federal law, every c-suite executive eyeing a cushy Silicon Valley job would have to spend a year in the moderation trenches comprehending the ugly souls of their shiny wares. Think Undercover Boss, except there are no cameras and no flattering Teaching Moments, just an endless stream of violence, crime and hate.
At the very least, it would make it harder for tech overlords like Mark Zuckerberg to trot out vague platitudes about their platforms “building community” while thousands of poorly-paid workers burn their retinas gazing deep into the abysmal hell-feeds they’ve created. And they might even learn something! Like, for instance, “Oh god, oh god, what have I done, this was all a mistake, this was all a terrible mistake.”
Of course, forcing social media CEOs to reckon with dark truths about their creations won’t solve every problem in Silicon Valley—which is why this program (which I’m calling EatSh!t) would ideally be expanded to include every startup that makes a few people very rich, some people’s lives a little bit more convenient, and leaves an unseen mass of non-employee “contractors” broken and sad.
If the tech CEO draft were widely instituted, would Travis Kalanick have berated a bankrupt Uber driver for not “taking responsibility for [his] own shit”? Would Amazon have dismissed a report about warehouse workers collapsing on the job by saying “we expect a certain level of performance”? Maybe so, but when the tech gods lie down on their Soylent-filled water beds each night, they would at least feel a shock of terror over a possible visit from a Dickensian ghost of startups past.
Founders love to recount their companies’ humble beginnings as just a small team with dream. We’d all be better off if they spent some hands-on time directly observing how all those dreams panned out.