Casey Newton of The Verge is out with a new look inside the dismal lives of Facebook's PTSD-stricken content moderators - an army of contractors tasked with enforcing the company's content policies by viewing countless beheadings, suicides, rapes, murders, sexually abused children and other traumatic content.
They're also the 'thought police' who have been criticized for selectively enforcing the company's definition of hate speech. Perhaps one of them is even responsible for Facebook's short-lived Zero Hedge ban, as we apparently went against the company's 'Community Standards' that day.
In February, Newton reported that content moderators in Phoenix were "trauma bonding" - having sex in stairwells or the 'lactation room,' while getting "routinely high at work" to cope with the stress and brutal demands to achieve the Facebook's 98% "accuracy" target.
Employed by professional services vendor Cognizant, Newton's Wednesday exposé takes us into the company's Tampa, FL content moderation site - the worst-performing in the nation - where employees start out at less than $15 an hour. Three former content moderators have broken their 14-page nondisclosure agreements to discuss how the Tampa location's 800 or so workers face "relentless pressure" to improve their 92% rating. While many are suffering from PTSD, one moderator had a heart attack at his desk at the age of 42 last year.
"The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly," one manager said of Keith Utley - a former Coast Guard lieutenant commander who left behind a wife and two young daughters after dying at work on March 9, 2018.
On the night of March 9th, 2018, Utley slumped over at his desk. Co-workers noticed that he was in distress when he began sliding out of his chair. Two of them began to perform CPR, but no defibrillator was available in the building. A manager called for an ambulance.
Paramedics raced Utley to a hospital. At Cognizant, some employees were distraught — one person told me he passed by one of the site’s designated “tranquility rooms” and found one of his co-workers, a part-time preacher, praying loudly in tongues. Others ignored the commotion entirely, and continued to moderate Facebook posts as the paramedics worked.
Utley was pronounced dead a short while later at the hospital, the victim of a heart attack. Further information about his health history, or the circumstances of his death, could not be learned. -The Verge
"I did a lot of coaching. I spent some time talking with him about things he was having issues seeing. And he was always worried about getting fired," the manager added.
Not wanting to put a dent in the already-dismal morale, management encouraged people to stop talking about Utley and get back to work. "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."
Cognizant, meanwhile, told The Verge "There is no indication that this medical condition was work related."
Since Newton's February report, conditions at the Phoenix location remain grim - with employees telling him that they are now dealing with their second bed bug infestation of the year. Following his first exposé, Newton reported receiving a flood of similar complaints from content moderators at other locations.
The largest single group of messages I received came from current and former Facebook contractors in Tampa. Many of them have worked closely with employees at the Phoenix site, and believe working conditions in Florida are even more grim.
Contractors told me that Cognizant had lured them away from less demanding jobs by promising regular schedules, bonuses, and career development, only to renege on all three.
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.
They said marijuana use is so prevalent that the site manager jokingly complained at an all-hands meeting that he had gotten a contact high walking in the door.
More than anything else, the contractors described an environment in which they are never allowed to forget how quickly they can be replaced. It is a place where even Keith Utley, who died working alongside them, would receive no workplace memorial — only a passing mention during team huddles in the days after he passed -The Verge
"We were bodies in seats," said one former moderator. "We were nothing to them — at all."
Read the rest of Newton's latest report here.