The logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite, in New York’s Times Square, Thursday, March 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
WARNING: Some of the things you’ll read below are disturbing. It will contain confessions by staff about hellish working conditions, and some of the graphic things they’ve seen while moderating the most trafficked social network on the planet.
The Verge recently released a very disturbing article that gives us an inside look into how the moderation company Facebook uses to make sure its site stays clean. Needless to say, the physical and psychological torment suffered by what is described by its employees as a sweatshop is the realm of nightmares.
The story begins by introducing you to Coast Guard veteran Keith Utley who “loved to help.” After getting out of the military he became a Facebook moderator at a company called Cognizant based out of Tampa Bay, Florida. It was there that he protected Facebook’s users from posts of hate speech, murders, child pornography.
Utley’s manager describes the ever-changing rules at Facebook that leave the 800 or so workers in a constant state of uncertainty. Utley, like the rest of his fellow employees, were constantly scared of being fired due to the fact that the moderation requirements change, and they miss things. The pressure was enormous.
And then one day, Utley slumped over at his desk and began sliding out of his chair. He was dying. Fellow employees tried to save him, and the ambulance that was called couldn’t find the building. By the time they got there, Utley was turning blue. By the time they got him to the hospital, Utley was dead.
As the commotion happened, many workers ignored the problem and kept moderating Facebook. What’s more, the following day, managers attempted to downplay the incident by telling employees that nothing had happened, or didn’t discuss it at all. They did that, according to one employee, because they didn’t want Utley’s death discouraging other workers from doing their jobs.
All that came crashing down when Utley’s father showed up according to Verge:
“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.”
This was just the icing on the cake to the kind of conditions Cognizant employees are subjected to, and many of them came forward to The Verge, who interviewed them for a video. The employees described horrible conditions they worked under, but not only that, the nightmarish things they were forced to see.
Workers, like the kind at Cognizant, are a line that stands between some of the most horrific things you can imagine. Animal abuse, child abuse, and more are uploaded to Facebook on a daily basis and we never see it due to the fact that moderators are there making sure we don’t. The trouble, according to some, is that they were never warned what they would be seeing. Many went in with the idea that they’d never see things they did.
As Shawn Spiegel told The Verge, it was “traumatic.”
I’ll warn you again. Some of the things in the video being discussed are absolutely awful, and those who are easily troubled shouldn’t watch it.
I won’t go into detail for those who wish to avoid them, but I can summarize here.
Former moderators tell stories of animal and child abuses that they were forced to watch. Speigal says, after composing himself from breaking down in tears, that he remembers the animal abuse videos most of all. At one point Speigel is asked about the first video he remembers seeing.
After describing the video, he was told that the video didn’t violate Facebook’s policies, at least at the time of his employment. It was allowed to remain up on the site. Sadly, the video kept reappearing in Spiegel’s inbox. He was forced to see and hear it over and over again.
“I just think about that,” Spiegel told The Verge while holding himself together. “And we’re not helping the animals either. Not even humans. We’re not even helping humans.”
Spiegel describes things he’s horrific and violent things people do to children while wiping away a tear.
“And it stays. It’s always there, and you always have to look at it,” said Spiegel. “You always see death every single day. You see pain and suffering. ”
The moderators who come forward tell that they see some of the cruelest things imaginable and that it stays with you throughout the day. Moods soured, diets became erratic, and nightmares became prevalent. Spiegel was later diagnosed with PTSD by a doctor and given medication just so he could sleep.
One veteran who said he was used to seeing violence against people went home and cried while holding his dog in his arms after he had been forced to watch a video of puppies being abused.
To add to the psychological horror being forced on Cognizant employees, the working conditions were also nightmarish. Reported cases of untreated bed bugs existing in the building on multiple occasions, unsanitary restrooms, and physical fights breaking out were common.
One worker, Melynda Johnson, described the state of the sole bathroom employees used according to Verge:
Johnson was particularly disturbed by the site’s sole bathroom, which she regularly found in a state of disrepair. (The company says it has janitors available every shift in Tampa.) In the stalls, signs posted in response to employee misbehavior proliferated. Do not use your feet to flush the toilet. Do not flush more than five toilet seat covers at one time. Do not put any substances, natural or unnatural, on the walls.
“And obviously the signs are there for a reason, because people are doing this,” said Johnson, who worked at the site until March. “Every bit of that building was absolutely disgusting. You’d go in the bathroom and there would be period blood and poop all over the place. It smelled horrendous all the time.”
There were five shifts, all constantly rotating. Some workers would come back to find their workstation beyond unsanitary. It was only cleaned if Facebook representatives were coming to visit:
The work day in Tampa is divided into five shifts, and desks are shared between employees. Contractors I spoke with said they would frequently come to work and find their workstation for the day in dire condition — encountering boogers, fingernails, and pubic hairs, among other items. The desks would be cleaned whenever Facebook made one of its regular planned visits to the site. At other times, employees told me, the office was filthy.
KC Hopkinson, an attorney who represents former and current Cognizant employees, told The Verge that some employees make open death threats to those in the building.
“Every time I get an email or a phone call from my clients, I worry that there’s been a shooting — and I know that’s their worry as well,” she said. “They go in there every morning asking, ‘what am I going to see today? And am I going to make it home tonight?’”
“I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to work there,” Hopkinson said. “It’s a terrible, terrible environment.”
This is just a taste of the hellish conditions that Cognizant employees go through while moderating the most popular social media site in the world. The Verge article goes on and on detaling things that would be considered human rights violations in a just world. It’s the kind of nightmare you only see in horror movies.