The Trauma Floor
The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America
By Casey Newton Feb 25, 2019, 8:00am EST
Content warning: This story contains discussion of serious mental health issues and racism.
The 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 â€œprocess
For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her
fellow trainees. When itâ€™s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays
a video that has been posted to the worldâ€™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. Chloeâ€™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
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 â€” or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizantâ€™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 usersâ€™ personal information
with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.
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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 Cognizantâ€™s vice president of
operations for business process services, Bob Duncan, and Facebookâ€™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. Itâ€™s a place where employees can be
fired for making just a few errors a week â€” and where those who remain live in fear of the
former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.
Itâ€™s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders
micromanage content moderatorsâ€™ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees,
desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and
a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in
training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the
counseling that Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit â€” or are simply let go.
The moderators told me itâ€™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: â€œI no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.â€
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 â€” $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
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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 donâ€™t get too caught up in what youâ€™re watching.
â€œHe said not to worry â€” that I could probably still do the job,â€ Chloe says. Then she catches
herself: â€œHis concern was: donâ€™t worry, you can do the job.â€
On May 3, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced the expansion of Facebookâ€™s â€œcommunity
operationsâ€ 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 companyâ€™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 â€” 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, Facebookâ€™s vice president of operations, said in a blog post last year
that the use of contract labor allowed Facebook to â€œscale globallyâ€ â€” 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 Facebookâ€™s investment in security would reduce the
companyâ€™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
moderatorsâ€™ â€œability to deal with violent imagery,â€ screening them for their coping skills.
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Bob Duncan, who oversees Cognizantâ€™s content moderation operations in North America, says
recruiters carefully explain the graphic nature of the job to applicants. â€œWe share examples of the
kinds of things you can see â€¦ so that they have an understanding,â€ he says. â€œThe intention of all
that is to ensure people understand it. And if they donâ€™t feel that work is potentially suited for
them based on their situation, they can make those decisions as appropriate.â€
Until recently, most Facebook content moderation has been done outside the United States. But
as Facebookâ€™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 companyâ€™s home and one of the countries in which it is most popular,
says Facebookâ€™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 â€œstate-of-the-art facilities, so they replicated
a Facebook office and had that Facebook look and feel to them. That was important because
thereâ€™s also a perception out there in the market sometimes â€¦ that our people sit in very dark,
dingy basements, lit only by a green screen. Thatâ€™s really not the case.â€
It is true that Cognizantâ€™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 Facebookâ€™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 employeesâ€™ limited break time.
And while Facebook employees enjoy a wide degree of freedom in how they manage their days,
Cognizant workersâ€™ time is managed down to the second.
A content moderator named Miguel arrives for the day shift just before it begins, at 7 a.m. Heâ€™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
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 userâ€™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.
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To accommodate four daily shifts â€” and high employee turnover â€” most people will not be
assigned a permanent desk on what Cognizant calls â€œthe production floor.â€ 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 â€œresume reviewing,â€ 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 â€œaccuracyâ€ over all else.
Accuracy, in this case, means that when Facebook audits a subset of contractorsâ€™ 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 â€” it usually floats in the high 80s or low 90s, and was hovering around
92 at press time.
Miguel diligently applies the policy â€” even though, he tells me, it often makes no sense to him.
A post calling someone â€œmy favorite n—–â€ is allowed to stay up, because under the policy it is
considered â€œexplicitly positive content.â€
â€œAutistic people should be sterilizedâ€ seems offensive to him, but it stays up as well. Autism is
not a â€œprotected characteristicâ€ the way race and gender are, and so it doesnâ€™t violate the policy.
(â€œMen should be sterilizedâ€ 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. â€œI hate all
menâ€ has always violated the policy. But â€œI just broke up with my boyfriend, and I hate all menâ€
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.
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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 â€œwrongâ€
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 â€œsubject matter expertâ€ (SME) â€” a
contractor expected to have more comprehensive knowledge of Facebookâ€™s policies, who makes
$1 more per hour than Miguel does â€” 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 Miguelâ€™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 â€” 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.
â€œAccuracy is only judged by agreement. If me and the auditor both allow the obvious sale of
heroin, Cognizant was â€˜correct,â€™ because we both agreed,â€ he says. â€œThis number is fake.â€
Facebookâ€™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 â€” 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 â€” as when a moderator removed a post that excerpted the Declaration of
Independence. (Thomas Jefferson was ultimately granted a posthumous exemption to
Facebookâ€™s speech guidelines, which prohibit the use of the phrase â€œIndian savages.â€)
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 Facebookâ€™s public community guidelines â€” 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 â€œKnown Questions,â€ which offers additional
commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation â€” a kind of Talmud to the
community guidelinesâ€™ Torah. Known Questions used to occupy a single lengthy document that
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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: Facebookâ€™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 Facebookâ€™s own product is working against them. The irony is not lost on the
â€œIt happened all the time,â€ says Diana, a former moderator. â€œIt was horrible â€” one of the worst
things I had to personally deal with, to do my job properly.â€ During times of national tragedy,
such as the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, managers would tell moderators to remove a video â€” 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.
â€œIt was such a big mess,â€ Diana says. â€œWeâ€™re supposed to be up to par with our decision making,
and it was messing up our numbers.â€
Workplace posts about policy changes are supplemented by occasional slide decks that are
shared with Cognizant workers about special topics in moderation â€” 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 â€œStoneham
Douglas High School.â€)
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 â€” a
perfect accuracy score â€” 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 Miguelâ€™s decision wrong, he can appeal the decision.
Getting the QA to agree with you is known as â€œgetting the point back.â€ In the short term, an
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â€œerrorâ€ 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
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. â€œThey would confront me in the parking lot and tell
me they were going to beat the shit out of me,â€ he says. â€œThere wasnâ€™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!â€
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.
Cognizantâ€™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.
â€œPart of the reason I left was how unsafe I felt in my own home and my own skin,â€ he says.
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Before Miguel can take a break, he clicks a browser extension to let Cognizant know he is
leaving his desk. (â€œThatâ€™s a standard thing in this type of industry,â€ Facebookâ€™s Davidson tells
me. â€œTo be able to track, so you know where your workforce is.â€)
Miguel is allowed two 15-minute breaks, and one 30-minute lunch. During breaks, he often finds
long lines for the restrooms. Hundreds of employees share just one urinal and two stalls in the
menâ€™s room, and three stalls in the womenâ€™s. Cognizant eventually allowed employees to use a
restroom on another floor, but getting there and back will take Miguel precious minutes. By the
time he has used the restroom and fought the crowd to his locker, he might have five minutes to
look at his phone before returning to his desk.
Miguel is also allotted nine minutes per day of â€œwellness time,â€ which he is supposed to use if he
feels traumatized and needs to step away from his desk. Several moderators told me that they
routinely used their wellness time to go to the restroom when lines were shorter. But
management eventually realized what they were doing, and ordered employees not to use
wellness time to relieve themselves. (Recently a group of Facebook moderators hired through
Accenture in Austin complained about â€œinhumaneâ€ conditions related to break periods;
Facebook attributed the issue to a misunderstanding of its policies.)
At the Phoenix site, Muslim workers who used wellness time to perform one of their five daily
prayers were told to stop the practice and do it on their other break time instead, current and
former employees told me. It was unclear to the employees I spoke with why their managers did
not consider prayer to be a valid use of the wellness program. (Cognizant did not offer a
comment about these incidents, although a person familiar with one case told me a worker
requested more than 40 minutes for daily prayer, which the company considered excessive.)
Cognizant employees are told to cope with the stress of the jobs by visiting counselors, when
they are available; by calling a hotline; and by using an employee assistance program, which
offers a handful of therapy sessions. More recently, yoga and other therapeutic activities have
been added to the work week. But aside from occasional visits to the counselor, six employees I
spoke with told me they found these resources inadequate. They told me they coped with the
stress of the job in other ways: with sex, drugs, and offensive jokes.
Among the places that Cognizant employees have been found having sex at work: the bathroom
stalls, the stairwells, the parking garage, and the room reserved for lactating mothers. In early
2018, the security team sent out a memo to managers alerting them to the behavior, a person
familiar with the matter told me. The solution: management removed door locks from the
motherâ€™s room and from a handful of other private rooms. (The motherâ€™s room now locks again,
but would-be users must first check out a key from an administrator.)
A former moderator named Sara said that the secrecy around their work, coupled with the
difficulty of the job, forged strong bonds between employees. â€œYou get really close to your
coworkers really quickly,â€ she says. â€œIf youâ€™re not allowed to talk to your friends or family about
your job, thatâ€™s going to create some distance. You might feel closer to these people. It feels like
an emotional connection, when in reality youâ€™re just trauma bonding.â€
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Employees also cope using drugs and alcohol, both on and off campus. One former moderator,
Li, told me he used marijuana on the job almost daily, through a vaporizer. During breaks, he
says, small groups of employees often head outside and smoke. (Medical marijuana use is legal
â€œI canâ€™t even tell you how many people Iâ€™ve smoked with,â€ Li says. â€œItâ€™s so sad, when I think
back about it â€” it really does hurt my heart. Weâ€™d go down and get stoned and go back to work.
Thatâ€™s not professional. Knowing that the content moderators for the worldâ€™s biggest social
media platform are doing this on the job, while they are moderating content â€¦â€
He trailed off.
Li, who worked as a moderator for about a year, was one of several employees who said the
workplace was rife with pitch-black humor. Employees would compete to send each other the
most racist or offensive memes, he said, in an effort to lighten the mood. As an ethnic minority,
Li was a frequent target of his coworkers, and he embraced what he saw as good-natured racist
jokes at his expense, he says.
But over time, he grew concerned for his mental health.
â€œWe were doing something that was darkening our soul â€” or whatever you call it,â€ he says.
â€œWhat else do you do at that point? The one thing that makes us laugh is actually damaging us. I
had to watch myself when I was joking around in public. I would accidentally say [offensive]
things all the time â€” and then be like, Oh shit, Iâ€™m at the grocery store. I cannot be talking like
Jokes about self-harm were also common. â€œDrinking to forget,â€ Sara heard a coworker once say,
when the counselor asked him how he was doing. (The counselor did not invite the employee in
for further discussion.) On bad days, Sara says, people would talk about it being â€œtime to go hang
out on the roofâ€ â€” the joke being that Cognizant employees might one day throw themselves off
One day, Sara said, moderators looked up from their computers to see a man standing on top of
the office building next door. Most of them had watched hundreds of suicides that began just this
way. The moderators got up and hurried to the windows.
The man didnâ€™t jump, though. Eventually everyone realized that he was a fellow employee,
taking a break.
Like most of the former moderators I spoke with, Chloe quit after about a year.
Among other things, she had grown concerned about the spread of conspiracy theories among
her colleagues. One QA often discussed his belief that the Earth is flat with colleagues, and â€œwas
actively trying to recruit other peopleâ€ into believing, another moderator told me. One of
Miguelâ€™s colleagues once referred casually to â€œthe Holohoax,â€ in what Miguel took as a signal
that the man was a Holocaust denier.
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Conspiracy theories were often well received on the production floor, six moderators told me.
After the Parkland shooting last year, moderators were initially horrified by the attacks. But as
more conspiracy content was posted to Facebook and Instagram, some of Chloeâ€™s colleagues
began expressing doubts.
â€œPeople really started to believe these posts they were supposed to be moderating,â€ she says.
â€œThey were saying, â€˜Oh gosh, they werenâ€™t really there. Look at this CNN video of David Hogg
â€” heâ€™s too old to be in school.â€™ People started Googling things instead of doing their jobs and
looking into conspiracy theories about them. We were like, â€˜Guys, no, this is the crazy stuff
weâ€™re supposed to be moderating. What are you doing?â€™â€
Most of all, though, Chloe worried about the long-term impacts of the job on her mental health.
Several moderators told me they experienced symptoms of secondary traumatic stress â€” a
disorder that can result from observing firsthand trauma experienced by others. The disorder,
whose symptoms can be identical to post-traumatic stress disorder, is often seen in physicians,
psychotherapists, and social workers. People experiencing secondary traumatic stress report
feelings of anxiety, sleep loss, loneliness, and dissociation, among other ailments.
Last year, a former Facebook moderator in California sued the company, saying her job as a
contractor with the firm Pro Unlimited had left her with PTSD. In the complaint, her lawyers
said she â€œseeks to protect herself from the dangers of psychological trauma resulting from
Facebookâ€™s failure to provide a safe workplace for the thousands of contractors who are
entrusted to provide the safest possible environment for Facebook users.â€ (The suit is still
Chloe has experienced trauma symptoms in the months since leaving her job. She started to have
a panic attack in a movie theater during the film Mother!, when a violent stabbing spree triggered
a memory of that first video she moderated in front of her fellow trainees. Another time, she was
sleeping on the couch when she heard machine gun fire, and had a panic attack. Someone in her
house had turned on a violent TV show. She â€œstarted freaking out,â€ she says. â€œI was begging
them to shut it off.â€
The attacks make her think of her fellow trainees, especially the ones who fail out of the program
before they can start. â€œA lot of people donâ€™t actually make it through the training,â€ she says.
â€œThey go through those four weeks and then they get fired. They could have had that same
experience that I did, and had absolutely no access to counselors after that.â€
Last week, Davidson told me, Facebook began surveying a test group of moderators to measure
what the company calls their â€œresiliencyâ€ â€” their ability to bounce back from seeing traumatic
content and continue doing their jobs. The company hopes to expand the test to all of its
moderators globally, he said.
Randy also left after about a year. Like Chloe, he had been traumatized by a video of a stabbing.
The victim had been about his age, and he remembers hearing the man crying for his mother as
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â€œEvery day I see that,â€ Randy says, â€œI have a genuine fear over knives. I like cooking â€” getting
back into the kitchen and being around the knives is really hard for me.â€
The job also changed the way he saw the world. After he saw so many videos saying that 9/11
was not a terrorist attack, he came to believe them. Conspiracy videos about the Las Vegas
massacre were also very persuasive, he says, and he now believes that multiple shooters were
responsible for the attack. (The FBI found that the massacre was the work of a single gunman.)
Randy now sleeps with a gun at his side. He runs mental drills about how he would escape his
home in the event that it were attacked. When he wakes up in the morning, he sweeps the house
with his gun raised, looking for invaders.
He has recently begun seeing a new therapist, after being diagnosed with PTSD and generalized
â€œIâ€™m fucked up, man,â€ Randy says. â€œMy mental health â€” itâ€™s just so up and down. One day I can
be really happy, and doing really good. The next day, Iâ€™m more or less of a zombie. Itâ€™s not that
Iâ€™m depressed. Iâ€™m just stuck.â€
He adds: â€œI donâ€™t think itâ€™s possible to do the job and not come out of it with some acute stress
disorder or PTSD.â€
A common complaint of the moderators I spoke with was that the on-site counselors were largely
passive, relying on workers to recognize the signs of anxiety and depression and seek help.
â€œThere was nothing that they were doing for us,â€ Li says, â€œother than expecting us to be able to
identify when weâ€™re broken. Most of the people there that are deteriorating â€” they donâ€™t even
see it. And thatâ€™s what kills me.â€
Last week, after I told Facebook about my conversations with moderators, the company invited
me to Phoenix to see the site for myself. It is the first time Facebook has allowed a reporter to
visit an American content moderation site since the company began building dedicated facilities
here two years ago. A spokeswoman who met me at the site says that the stories I have been told
do not reflect the day-to-day experiences of most of its contractors, either at Phoenix or at its
other sites around the world.
The day before I arrived at the office park where Cognizant resides, one source tells me, new
motivational posters were hung up on the walls. On the whole, the space is much more colorful
than I expect. A neon wall chart outlines the monthâ€™s activities, which read like a cross between
the activities at summer camp and a senior center: yoga, pet therapy, meditation, and a Mean
Girls-inspired event called On Wednesdays We Wear Pink. The day I was there marked the end
of Random Acts of Kindness Week, in which employees were encouraged to write inspirational
messages on colorful cards, and attach them to a wall with a piece of candy.
After meetings with executives from Cognizant and Facebook, I interview five workers who had
volunteered to speak with me. They stream into a conference room, along with the man who is
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responsible for running the site. With their boss sitting at their side, employees acknowledge the
challenges of the job but tell me they feel safe, supported, and believe the job will lead to betterpaying opportunities â€” within Cognizant, if not Facebook.
Brad, who holds the title of policy manager, tells me that the majority of content that he and his
colleagues review is essentially benign, and warns me against overstating the mental health risks
of doing the job.
â€œThereâ€™s this perception that weâ€™re bombarded by these graphic images and content all the time,
when in fact the opposite is the truth,â€ says Brad, who has worked on the site for nearly two
years. â€œMost of the stuff we see is mild, very mild. Itâ€™s people going on rants. Itâ€™s people
reporting photos or videos simply because they donâ€™t want to see it â€” not because thereâ€™s any
issue with the content. Thatâ€™s really the majority of the stuff that we see.â€
When I ask about the high difficulty of applying the policy, a reviewer named Michael says that
he regularly finds himself stumped by tricky decisions. â€œThere is an infinite possibility of whatâ€™s
gonna be the next job, and that does create an essence of chaos,â€ he says. â€œBut it also keeps it
interesting. Youâ€™re never going to go an entire shift already knowing the answer to every
In any case, Michael says, he enjoys the work better than he did at his last job, at Walmart,
where he was often berated by customers. â€œI do not have people yelling in my face,â€ he says.
The moderators stream out, and Iâ€™m introduced to two counselors on the site, including the
doctor who started the on-site counseling program here. Both ask me not to use their real names.
They tell me that they check in with every employee every day. They say that the combination of
on-site services, a hotline, and an employee assistance program are sufficient to protect workersâ€™
When I ask about the risks of contractors developing PTSD, a counselor Iâ€™ll call Logan tells me
about a different psychological phenomenon: â€œpost-traumatic growth,â€ an effect whereby some
trauma victims emerge from the experience feeling stronger than before. The example he gives
me is that of Malala Yousafzai, the womenâ€™s education activist, who was shot in the head as a
teenager by the Taliban.
â€œThatâ€™s an extremely traumatic event that she experienced in her life,â€ Logan says. â€œIt seems like
she came back extremely resilient and strong. She won a Nobel Peace Prize… So there are many
examples of people that experience difficult times and come back stronger than before.â€
The day ends with a tour, in which I walk the production floor and talk with other employees. I
am struck by how young they are: almost everyone seems to be in their twenties or early thirties.
All work stops while Iâ€™m on the floor, to ensure I do not see any Facebook userâ€™s private
information, and so employees chat amiably with their deskmates as I walk by. I take note of the
posters. One, from Cognizant, bears the enigmatic slogan â€œempathy at scale.â€ Another, made
famous by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, reads â€œWhat would you do if you werenâ€™t afraid?â€
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It makes me think of Randy and his gun.
Everyone I meet at the site expresses great care for the employees, and appears to be doing their
best for them, within the context of the system they have all been plugged into. Facebook takes
pride in the fact that it pays contractors at least 20 percent above minimum wage at all of its
content review sites, provides full healthcare benefits, and offers mental health resources that far
exceed that of the larger call center industry.
And yet the more moderators I spoke with, the more I came to doubt the use of the call center
model for content moderation. This model has long been standard across big tech companies â€”
itâ€™s also used by Twitter and Google, and therefore YouTube. Beyond cost savings, the benefit of
outsourcing is that it allows tech companies to rapidly expand their services into new markets
and languages. But it also entrusts essential questions of speech and safety to people who are
paid as if they were handling customer service calls for Best Buy.
Every moderator I spoke with took great pride in their work, and talked about the job with
profound seriousness. They wished only that Facebook employees would think of them as peers,
and to treat them with something resembling equality.
â€œIf we werenâ€™t there doing that job, Facebook would be so ugly,â€ Li says. â€œWeâ€™re seeing all that
stuff on their behalf. And hell yeah, we make some wrong calls. But people donâ€™t know that
thereâ€™s actually human beings behind those seats.â€
That people donâ€™t know there are human beings doing this work is, of course, by design.
Facebook would rather talk about its advancements in artificial intelligence, and dangle the
prospect that its reliance on human moderators will decline over time.
But given the limits of the technology, and the infinite varieties of human speech, such a day
appears to be very far away. In the meantime, the call center model of content moderation is
taking an ugly toll on many of its workers. As first responders on platforms with billions of
users, they are performing a critical function of modern civil society, while being paid less than
half as much as many others who work on the front lines. They do the work as long as they can
â€” and when they leave, an NDA ensures that they retreat even further into the shadows.
To Facebook, it will seem as if they never worked there at all. Technically, they never did.
The Trauma Floor