It’s no secret that the workforce tasked with reviewing the most offensive content on the web is underpaid, overworked, and poorly supported. A new story from The Verge on Facebook moderators in Phoenix, Arizona further illustrates the disturbing reality of life for these workers—who reportedly make just $28,800 a year and use sex and drugs to deal with the stress.
The report published on Monday detailed the experiences of current and former employees who worked at professional services company Cognizant, a company they say Facebook outsources its moderating efforts to. (The Verge used pseudonyms for all the workers interviewed, who say non-disclosure agreements were written to bar them from discussing Cognizant’s work with Facebook.) According to the report, employees experienced severe mental health distress, which they coped with by having sex at the office and smoking weed. Some even began believing the conspiracy theories they were tasked with reviewing. One quality assurance manager said he began bringing a gun to work in response to threats from fired workers.
“There was nothing that they were doing for us,” one former moderator told The Verge, “other than expecting us to be able to identify when we’re broken. Most of the people there that are deteriorating—they don’t even see it. And that’s what kills me.”
“Randy,” a quality assurance worker at Cognizant charged with reviewing posts flagged by moderators, said that several times over his year at the company he was approached and intimidated by moderators to change his decisions. “They would confront me in the parking lot and tell me they were going to beat the shit out of me,” Randy told The Verge. He also said that fired Cognizant employees made what he believed to be genuine threats of harm to their former colleagues. Randy started to bring a concealed gun to the office to protect himself.
Employees told The Verge that moderators in the Phoenix office dealt with the hellish reality of their jobs by having sex in the office—in stairwells, bathrooms, parking garages, and a lactation room—smoking weed on breaks, and joking about suicide. A former moderator claimed that there was a joke among colleagues that “time to go hang out on the roof” was subtext for wanting to jump off the building.
Moderators for Facebook have to review graphic posts containing violence, dehumanizing speech, and child abuse, but they also have to weed through the conspiracy theories that run rampant on the web. It’s well-reported that the former has resulted in moderators developing PTSD and other debilitating mental health issues, but Monday’s report from The Verge indicates that the latter may be causing them to develop fringe beliefs.
Randy told The Verge that he doesn’t believe that 9/11 was a terrorist attack after reviewing enough conspiracy theory videos that tried to make that case. One moderator claimed that a quality assurance worker was trying to convince his colleagues that the earth was flat. Another Cognizant employee reportedly referred to the holocaust as “the Holohoax.”
“People really started to believe these posts they were supposed to be moderating,” a moderator told The Verge. “They were saying, ‘Oh gosh, they weren’t really there. Look at this CNN video of [Parkland shooting survivor] David Hogg—he’s too old to be in school.’ People started Googling things instead of doing their jobs and looking into conspiracy theories about them. We were like, ‘Guys, no, this is the crazy stuff we’re supposed to be moderating. What are you doing?’”
It is unclear whether moderators were definitively radicalized as a product of the job or if they came into the position inclined or predisposed to certain hoaxes. But for those looking to confirm certain beliefs or those especially vulnerable to persuasion, consuming a barrage of hoaxes isn’t just inescapable, it’s part of the job.
Update 2:59 p.m. ET: In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson directed Gizmodo to a post by the company’s vice president of global operations addressing “questions, misunderstandings and accusations” concerning Facebook’s content review program.
The post lists several “key initiatives” the social giant is pursuing to improve the wellness of workers at companies partnered with Facebook, including a “regular compliance and audit process for all of our outsourced partners” and improved “communication channels particularly with sites managed by partners.”
Additionally, the Facebook spokesperson provided a statement from Cognizant that states the company is “is committed to providing a healthy, safe and positive work environment”:
We have investigated the specific workplace issues raised [by The Verge/in media reports], previously taken action where necessary and have steps in place to continue to address these concerns and any others raised by our employees. In addition to offering a comprehensive wellness program at Cognizant, including a safe and supportive work culture, 24x7 phone support and onsite counselor support to employees, Cognizant has partnered with leading HR and Wellness consultants to develop the next generation of wellness practices.
In order to ensure a safe working environment, we continuously review our workplace offerings, in partnership with [Facebook/our clients], and will continue to make necessary enhancements.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.