The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America

Content warningThis story contains discussion of serious mental health issues and racism.

 panic attacks started after Chloe watched a man die.

She spent the past three and a half weeks in training, trying to harden herself against the daily onslaught of disturbing posts: the hate speech, the violent attacks, the graphic pornography. In a few more days, she will become a full-time Facebook content moderator, or what the company she works for, a professional services vendor named Cognizant, opaquely calls a “process executive.”

For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

 

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office.

Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

But the secrecy also insulates Cognizant and Facebook from criticism about their working conditions, moderators told me. They are pressured not to discuss the emotional toll that their job takes on them, even with loved ones, leading to increased feelings of isolation and anxiety. To protect them from potential retaliation, both from their employers and from Facebook users, I agreed to use pseudonyms for everyone named in this story except Cognizant’s vice president of operations for business process services, Bob Duncan, and Facebook’s director of global partner vendor management, Mark Davidson.

Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Chloe cries for a while in the break room, and then in the bathroom, but begins to worry that she is missing too much training. She had been frantic for a job when she applied, as a recent college graduate with no other immediate prospects. When she becomes a full-time moderator, Chloe will make $15 an hour — $4 more than the minimum wage in Arizona, where she lives, and better than she can expect from most retail jobs.

The tears eventually stop coming, and her breathing returns to normal. When she goes back to the training room, one of her peers is discussing another violent video. She sees that a drone is shooting people from the air. Chloe watches the bodies go limp as they die.

She leaves the room again.

Eventually a supervisor finds her in the bathroom, and offers a weak hug. Cognizant makes a counselor available to employees, but only for part of the day, and he has yet to get to work. Chloe waits for him for the better part of an hour.

When the counselor sees her, he explains that she has had a panic attack. He tells her that, when she graduates, she will have more control over the Facebook videos than she had in the training room. You will be able to pause the video, he tells her, or watch it without audio. Focus on your breathing, he says. Make sure you don’t get too caught up in what you’re watching.

”He said not to worry — that I could probably still do the job,” Chloe says. Then she catches herself: “His concern was: don’t worry, you can do the job.”

 

On May 3, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced the expansion of Facebook’s “community operations” team. The new employees, who would be added to 4,500 existing moderators, would be responsible for reviewing every piece of content reported for violating the company’s community standards. By the end of 2018, in response to criticism of the prevalence of violent and exploitative content on the social network, Facebook had more than 30,000 employees working on safety and security — about half of whom were content moderators.

The moderators include some full-time employees, but Facebook relies heavily on contract labor to do the job. Ellen Silver, Facebook’s vice president of operations, said in a blog post last year that the use of contract labor allowed Facebook to “scale globally” — to have content moderators working around the clock, evaluating posts in more than 50 languages, at more than 20 sites around the world.

The use of contract labor also has a practical benefit for Facebook: it is radically cheaper. The median Facebook employee earns $240,000 annually in salary, bonuses, and stock options. A content moderator working for Cognizant in Arizona, on the other hand, will earn just $28,800 per year. The arrangement helps Facebook maintain a high profit margin. In its most recent quarter, the company earned $6.9 billion in profits, on $16.9 billion in revenue. And while Zuckerberg had warned investors that Facebook’s investment in security would reduce the company’s profitability, profits were up 61 percent over the previous year.

Since 2014, when Adrian Chen detailed the harsh working conditions for content moderators at social networks for Wired, Facebook has been sensitive to the criticism that it is traumatizing some of its lowest-paid workers. In her blog post, Silver said that Facebook assesses potential moderators’ “ability to deal with violent imagery,” screening them for their coping skills.

Bob Duncan, who oversees Cognizant’s content moderation operations in North America, says recruiters carefully explain the graphic nature of the job to applicants. “We share examples of the kinds of things you can see … so that they have an understanding,” he says. “The intention of all that is to ensure people understand it. And if they don’t feel that work is potentially suited for them based on their situation, they can make those decisions as appropriate.”

Until recently, most Facebook content moderation has been done outside the United States. But as Facebook’s demand for labor has grown, it has expanded its domestic operations to include sites in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.

The United States is the company’s home and one of the countries in which it is most popular, says Facebook’s Davidson. American moderators are more likely to have the cultural context necessary to evaluate U.S. content that may involve bullying and hate speech, which often involve country-specific slang, he says.

Facebook also worked to build what Davidson calls “state-of-the-art facilities, so they replicated a Facebook office and had that Facebook look and feel to them. That was important because there’s also a perception out there in the market sometimes … that our people sit in very dark, dingy basements, lit only by a green screen. That’s really not the case.”

It is true that Cognizant’s Phoenix location is neither dark nor dingy. And to the extent that it offers employees desks with computers on them, it may faintly resemble other Facebook offices. But while employees at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters work in an airy, sunlit complex designed by Frank Gehry, its contractors in Arizona labor in an often cramped space where long lines for the few available bathroom stalls can take up most of employees’ limited break time. And while Facebook employees enjoy a wide degree of freedom in how they manage their days, Cognizant workers’ time is managed down to the second.


Acontent moderator named Miguel arrives for the day shift just before it begins, at 7 a.m. He’s one of about 300 workers who will eventually filter into the workplace, which occupies two floors in a Phoenix office park.

Security personnel keep watch over the entrance, on the lookout for disgruntled ex-employees and Facebook users who might confront moderators over removed posts. Miguel badges in to the office and heads to the lockers. There are barely enough lockers to go around, so some employees have taken to keeping items in them overnight to ensure they will have one the next day.

The lockers occupy a narrow hallway that, during breaks, becomes choked with people. To protect the privacy of the Facebook users whose posts they review, workers are required to store their phones in lockers while they work.

Writing utensils and paper are also not allowed, in case Miguel might be tempted to write down a Facebook user’s personal information. This policy extends to small paper scraps, such as gum wrappers. Smaller items, like hand lotion, are required to be placed in clear plastic bags so they are always visible to managers.

To accommodate four daily shifts — and high employee turnover — most people will not be assigned a permanent desk on what Cognizant calls “the production floor.” Instead, Miguel finds an open workstation and logs in to a piece of software known as the Single Review Tool, or SRT. When he is ready to work, he clicks a button labeled “resume reviewing,” and dives into the queue of posts.

Last April, a year after many of the documents had been published in the Guardian, Facebook made public the community standards by which it attempts to govern its 2.3 billion monthly users. In the months afterward, Motherboard and Radiolab published detailed investigations into the challenges of moderating such a vast amount of speech.

Those challenges include the sheer volume of posts; the need to train a global army of low-paid workers to consistently apply a single set of rules; near-daily changes and clarifications to those rules; a lack of cultural or political context on the part of the moderators; missing context in posts that makes their meaning ambiguous; and frequent disagreements among moderators about whether the rules should apply in individual cases.

Despite the high degree of difficulty in applying such a policy, Facebook has instructed Cognizant and its other contractors to emphasize a metric called “accuracy” over all else. Accuracy, in this case, means that when Facebook audits a subset of contractors’ decisions, its full-time employees agree with the contractors. The company has set an accuracy target of 95 percent, a number that always seems just out of reach. Cognizant has never hit the target for a sustained period of time — it usually floats in the high 80s or low 90s, and was hovering around 92 at press time.

Miguel diligently applies the policy — even though, he tells me, it often makes no sense to him.

A post calling someone “my favorite n—–” is allowed to stay up, because under the policy it is considered “explicitly positive content.”

“Autistic people should be sterilized” seems offensive to him, but it stays up as well. Autism is not a “protected characteristic” the way race and gender are, and so it doesn’t violate the policy. (“Men should be sterilized” would be taken down.)

In January, Facebook distributes a policy update stating that moderators should take into account recent romantic upheaval when evaluating posts that express hatred toward a gender. “I hate all men” has always violated the policy. But “I just broke up with my boyfriend, and I hate all men” no longer does.

Miguel works the posts in his queue. They arrive in no particular order at all.

Here is a racist joke. Here is a man having sex with a farm animal. Here is a graphic video of murder recorded by a drug cartel. Some of the posts Miguel reviews are on Facebook, where he says bullying and hate speech are more common; others are on Instagram, where users can post under pseudonyms, and tend to share more violence, nudity, and sexual activity.

Each post presents Miguel with two separate but related tests. First, he must determine whether a post violates the community standards. Then, he must select the correct reason why it violates the standards. If he accurately recognizes that a post should be removed, but selects the “wrong” reason, this will count against his accuracy score.

Miguel is very good at his job. He will take the correct action on each of these posts, striving to purge Facebook of its worst content while protecting the maximum amount of legitimate (if uncomfortable) speech. He will spend less than 30 seconds on each item, and he will do this up to 400 times a day.

When Miguel has a question, he raises his hand, and a “subject matter expert” (SME) — a contractor expected to have more comprehensive knowledge of Facebook’s policies, who makes $1 more per hour than Miguel does — will walk over and assist him. This will cost Miguel time, though, and while he does not have a quota of posts to review, managers monitor his productivity, and ask him to explain himself when the number slips into the 200s.

From Miguel’s 1,500 or so weekly decisions, Facebook will randomly select 50 or 60 to audit. These posts will be reviewed by a second Cognizant employee — a quality assurance worker, known internally as a QA, who also makes $1 per hour more than Miguel. Full-time Facebook employees then audit a subset of QA decisions, and from these collective deliberations, an accuracy score is generated.

Miguel takes a dim view of the accuracy figure.

“Accuracy is only judged by agreement. If me and the auditor both allow the obvious sale of heroin, Cognizant was ‘correct,’ because we both agreed,” he says. “This number is fake.”

Facebook’s single-minded focus on accuracy developed after sustaining years of criticism over its handling of moderation issues. With billions of new posts arriving each day, Facebook feels pressure on all sides. In some cases, the company has been criticized for not doing enough — as when United Nations investigators found that it had been complicit in spreading hate speech during the genocide of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. In others, it has been criticized for overreach — as when a moderator removed a post that excerpted the Declaration of Independence. (Thomas Jefferson was ultimately granted a posthumous exemption to Facebook’s speech guidelines, which prohibit the use of the phrase “Indian savages.”)

One reason moderators struggle to hit their accuracy target is that for any given policy enforcement decision, they have several sources of truth to consider.

The canonical source for enforcement is Facebook’s public community guidelines — which consist of two sets of documents: the publicly posted ones, and the longer internal guidelines, which offer more granular detail on complex issues. These documents are further augmented by a 15,000-word secondary document, called “Known Questions,” which offers additional commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation — a kind of Talmud to the community guidelines’ Torah. Known Questions used to occupy a single lengthy document that moderators had to cross-reference daily; last year it was incorporated into the internal community guidelines for easier searching.

A third major source of truth is the discussions moderators have among themselves. During breaking news events, such as a mass shooting, moderators will try to reach a consensus on whether a graphic image meets the criteria to be deleted or marked as disturbing. But sometimes they reach the wrong consensus, moderators said, and managers have to walk the floor explaining the correct decision.

The fourth source is perhaps the most problematic: Facebook’s own internal tools for distributing information. While official policy changes typically arrive every other Wednesday, incremental guidance about developing issues is distributed on a near-daily basis. Often, this guidance is posted to Workplace, the enterprise version of Facebook that the company introduced in 2016. Like Facebook itself, Workplace has an algorithmic News Feed that displays posts based on engagement. During a breaking news event, such as a mass shooting, managers will often post conflicting information about how to moderate individual pieces of content, which then appear out of chronological order on Workplace. Six current and former employees told me that they had made moderation mistakes based on seeing an outdated post at the top of their feed. At times, it feels as if Facebook’s own product is working against them. The irony is not lost on the moderators.

“It happened all the time,” says Diana, a former moderator. “It was horrible — one of the worst things I had to personally deal with, to do my job properly.” During times of national tragedy, such as the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, managers would tell moderators to remove a video — and then, in a separate post a few hours later, to leave it up. The moderators would make a decision based on whichever post Workplace served up.

“It was such a big mess,” Diana says. “We’re supposed to be up to par with our decision making, and it was messing up our numbers.”

Workplace posts about policy changes are supplemented by occasional slide decks that are shared with Cognizant workers about special topics in moderation — often tied to grim anniversaries, such as the Parkland shooting. But these presentations and other supplementary materials often contain embarrassing errors, moderators told me. Over the past year, communications from Facebook incorrectly identified certain U.S. representatives as senators; misstated the date of an election; and gave the wrong name for the high school at which the Parkland shooting took place. (It is Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, not “Stoneham Douglas High School.”)

Even with an ever-changing rulebook, moderators are granted only the slimmest margins of error. The job resembles a high-stakes video game in which you start out with 100 points — a perfect accuracy score — and then scratch and claw to keep as many of those points as you can. Because once you fall below 95, your job is at risk.

If a quality assurance manager marks Miguel’s decision wrong, he can appeal the decision. Getting the QA to agree with you is known as “getting the point back.” In the short term, an “error” is whatever a QA says it is, and so moderators have good reason to appeal every time they are marked wrong. (Recently, Cognizant made it even harder to get a point back, by requiring moderators to first get a SME to approve their appeal before it would be forwarded to the QA.)

Sometimes, questions about confusing subjects are escalated to Facebook. But every moderator I asked about this said that Cognizant managers discourage employees from raising issues to the client, apparently out of fear that too many questions would annoy Facebook.

This has resulted in Cognizant inventing policy on the fly. When the community standards did not explicitly prohibit erotic asphyxiation, three former moderators told me, a team leader declared that images depicting choking would be permitted unless the fingers depressed the skin of the person being choked.

Before workers are fired, they are offered coaching and placed into a remedial program designed to make sure they master the policy. But often this serves as a pretext for managing workers out of the job, three former moderators told me. Other times, contractors who have missed too many points will escalate their appeals to Facebook for a final decision. But the company does not always get through the backlog of requests before the employee in question is fired, I was told.

Officially, moderators are prohibited from approaching QAs and lobbying them to reverse a decision. But it is still a regular occurrence, two former QAs told me.

One, named Randy, would sometimes return to his car at the end of a work day to find moderators waiting for him. Five or six times over the course of a year, someone would attempt to intimidate him into changing his ruling. “They would confront me in the parking lot and tell me they were going to beat the shit out of me,” he says. “There wasn’t even a single instance where it was respectful or nice. It was just, You audited me wrong! That was a boob! That was full areola, come on man!

Fearing for his safety, Randy began bringing a concealed gun to work. Fired employees regularly threatened to return to work and harm their old colleagues, and Randy believed that some of them were serious. A former coworker told me she was aware that Randy brought a gun to work, and approved of it, fearing on-site security would not be sufficient in the case of an attack.

Cognizant’s Duncan told me the company would investigate the various safety and management issues that moderators had disclosed to me. He said bringing a gun to work was a violation of policy and that, had management been aware of it, they would have intervened and taken action against the employee.

Randy quit after a year. He never had occasion to fire the gun, but his anxiety lingers.

“Part of the reason I left was how unsafe I felt in my own home and my own skin,” he says.

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