Outsourced Facebook content moderators suffering trauma ‘in silence’

Oireachtas committee told workers need psychological support rather than wellness coaching

A content moderator who works for Facebook through an outsourced firm has told an Oireachtas committee of the trauma those doing the job experience. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images.

A content moderator who works for Facebook through an outsourced firm has told an Oireachtas committee of the trauma those doing the job experience. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images.

 

A content moderator who works for Facebook through an outsourced firm has described to an Oireachtas committee the “pervasive climate of fear” which exists in her place of work and the trauma staff must “suffer in silence”.

Isabella Plunkett explained how she has suffered nightmares about the videos she must watch in work and has been taking anti-depressants for seven months.

Two years ago, when she started working with Covalen, a company contracted by Facebook to moderate its content, Ms Plunkett was filled with excitement about building a career in the tech industry.

This energy quickly burned out, she told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Moderators are offered weekly sessions with “wellness coaches” who often suggest staff do karaoke or paint to let off steam, said Ms Plunkett. They cannot discuss any of the content they view - which includes child exploitation, graphic violence and suicide - with friends or family outside the company.

“If we’re not given that support in work what are we supposed to do, sit by ourselves and suffer in silence?”

Moderators are trained to be like machines so that some day in the future actual machines can take over the role, she said.

Outsourced staff are told moderation must be carried out in the office and cannot be done from home, even during the pandemic, she said.

“We see our counterparts in Facebook doing the same work from home and we have to risk coming in every day.

“If we’re core enough to be asked to risk our lives and those our loved ones to come into the office, we’re core enough to be staff.”

‘Censored’

Staff turnover in these outsourcing companies is high with most people only lasting two years in the position, she said.

Those who are leaving and post on the in-house online chat network about the poor treatment they endured often see their comments deleted and accounts disabled, Ms Plunkett claimed.

“It’s clear it was being censored.... it makes you fearful. You see this action being taken by the company and you wonder why? Why do I not have the right to speak about such matters?” she asked.

“Facebook presents itself as a progressive workplace. There are slogans in our office like ‘Be Bold, Be Brave’. How can we be brave when our right to speak is consistently undermined?”

Cori Crider, director of the Foxglove advocacy group, which helps moderators seek a fairer workplace, noted that she was advised, following a meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in January, to contact the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) regarding staff being required to work from the office during Covid-19.

She said the HSA did not respond but that she later learned they had contacted the outsourcing company and found conditions to be acceptable. This was “perplexing,” she said.

Like Ms Plunkett, Ms Crider says moderators need access to medical specialists for psychological support, not weekly wellness sessions. They should be offered the same supports police investigating child abuse cases receive, she said.

“The fact that it’s mental health and therefore harder to see doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real medical workplace health and safety issue.”

Personal injury claims

There are currently around 30 personal injury claims against tech firms in the Irish courts from individuals who have suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to this kind of work, she said.

Ms Crider suggested that the committee invite tech companies to a hearing on the working conditions of moderators and called for all moderation to be brought in-house rather than relying on outsourced companies to hire staff.

On the non-disclosure agreements that staff must sign upon employment, Fionnuala Ní Bhrógáin, of the Communications Workers Union, alleged moderators were being made to agree to the contents without having time to read the statement in full.

This written agreement, which they often never see again, creates a sense of fear around speaking up or requesting support, said Ms Ní Bhrógáin.

“They cannot discuss the content they’ve seen or the impact that it has on them and I think that’s extraordinary given the mental health support we feel is necessary.”

Moderators need to come together in trade unions to exercise their collective power, as has been done by some workers in the US, said Ms Ní Bhrógáin.

“Once they realise the strength of their collective power they will see real changes in their terms and conditions.”