Removing violent content from Facebook sounds like the worst job ever

Imagine working in an office setting where your job is to review the most despicable content uploaded to Facebook every day. I’m not talking about harsh language or mean messages, I mean video of people brutalizing animals for fun or even hurting children. How much of that could you take before you’d be ready to quit and take any other job?

Yesterday the Verge had a report on a Facebook content moderation site run by a company called Cognizant in Tampa, Florida. The Verge spoke to 12 people who work there, three of whom violated their non-disclosure agreements to talk about what they’d experienced:

 Speagle was 23 and employed at an online education company working with English language learners when he visited a Cognizant job fair. A recruiter there described to him a role in which Speagle would primarily help businesses analyze engagement on their Facebook pages. He might have to do some content moderation, the recruiter said, but Speagle entered the interview believing he was about to embark on a new career in high technology — one that he hoped would eventually lead to a full-time role at Facebook.

Cognizant offered Speagle $15 an hour to do the job full time — a marked improvement over his previous job, which was seasonal. Only after he began training did he realize that the job would not, in fact, involve helping businesses with Facebook marketing. Instead, two weeks after Speagle was put onto the production floor, a manager told him he and a colleague would be reviewing graphic violence and hate speech full time…

Speagle vividly recalls the first video he saw in his new assignment. Two teenagers spot an iguana on the ground, and one picks it up by the tail. A third teenager films what happens next: the teen holding the iguana begins smashing it onto the street. “They beat the living shit out of this thing,” Speagle told me, as tears welled up in his eyes. “The iguana was screaming and crying. And they didn’t stop until the thing was a bloody pulp.”…

For the six months after he was hired, Speagle would moderate 100 to 200 posts a day. He watched people throw puppies into a raging river, and put lit fireworks in dogs’ mouths. He watched people mutilate the genitals of a live mouse, and chop off a cat’s face with a hatchet. He watched videos of people playing with human fetuses, and says he learned that they are allowed on Facebook “as long as the skin is translucent.” He found that he could no longer sleep for more than two or three hours a night. He would frequently wake up in a cold sweat, crying.

I feel repulsed just hearing about it. I can’t imagine having to look at stuff like this all day for $15 an hour. Asked what he thought needed to change, Speagle told the Verge, “I think Facebook needs to shut down.” That sounds a bit extreme, but then I haven’t spent weeks looking at the very worst of human behavior on Facebook. If I had, maybe I’d want it to shut down too.

Perhaps because of the constant exposure to such negative behavior, the atmosphere inside the office seems to be pretty bad.

They described a filthy workplace in which they regularly find pubic hair and other bodily waste at their workstations. Employees said managers laugh off or ignore sexual harassment and threats of violence. Two discrimination cases have been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since April…

An employee who threatened to “shoot up the building” in a group chat was placed on paid leave and allowed to return. He was fired after making another similar threat.

There are a bunch more indications like this, signs that people in the office are on edge and not coping well with the stress. KC Hopkinson, an attorney who represents people working at the site told the Verge, “I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to work there.”

The thing that comes to mind for me is police working in difficult neighborhoods. I once knew someone who had worked as a cop in Los Angeles for a number of years. He told me stories about some of the calls he went on. I won’t repeat them but they were haunting. It’s similar to what these content moderators are describing. After years as a cop, he moved to a job doing IT for a small company. He decided it was better to work with machines than people.

You could argue that the same horrible things would be taking place whether or not Facebook (or other social media sites) existed. But I’m not sure that’s true. Someone was filming all of these things, probably with the intent of sharing them on social media. The technology doesn’t create sick and stupid people but it does give them a large audience of other sick and stupid people to perform for.