The Shadow Workforce of Facebook’s Content Moderation
As in Omelas, however, the joyousness of Facebook’s hundreds of thousands of advertisers depends wholly on the misery of a small number of other people: its content moderators. For his article, Newton spoke with several current and former employees of Cognizant, a “professional services vendor” contracted by Facebook to moderate its platform, removing the content that violates Facebook’s terms of service. In practice, this can mean spending your days scrolling through post after post of graphic porn, hate speech, and videos of death and violence. “People develop severe anxiety while still in training,” Newton writes, “and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave,” but are given minimal support and job stability — each employee gets nine “wellness time” minutes per day, to be used if they feel traumatized and need to stop moderating. Meanwhile, “the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views.” For their trouble, they are paid $28,800 a year, around 12 percent of the average salaried Facebook employee’s total compensation of $240,000.
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The moderators sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from talking about what they’d done for Facebook — or even, apparently, that they’d worked for Facebook at all. This theoretically protects private Facebook user data from leaking out. But it also has the effect of hiding the 1,500 content moderators from the outside world, preventing them from even describing the difficulty of their jobs, let alone agitating for better working conditions. Even full-time Facebook employees are apparently unaware of the extent to which Facebook contracts out its content moderation, and the conditions under which that moderation is taking place, despite its importance. “Why do we contract out work that’s obviously vital to the health of this company and the products we build?” one employee asked on an internal company message board.
Rather than address its various mounting content issues with dedicated staff hires, the company farmed out moderation work to contractors, needing to maintain a cost structure that relied on low labor costs, and believing that eventually an “engineering solution” could be developed to keep the platform clean and safe. This bargain has worked out well for Facebook, which by 2016 was raking in an incredible $600,000 per full-time employee in net profit. It has worked out rather less well for the rest of us — particularly the contactor moderators with PTSD-like symptoms. (Facebook’s profit margins have been thinning over the last two years, naturally, as it expands its “security” team, which includes moderators.)
The idea that you can keep your labor costs low by relying on software automation, creating the eye-popping profit margins that venture capitalists approvingly call “software margins,” is a foundational belief of 21st-century Silicon Valley. Albergotti quotes the mantra COO Sheryl Sandberg brought to Facebook from Google: “People don’t scale.” And it’s true that there are some tasks — like selling and placing digital ads — that are more efficiently and profitably done by software programs. But there aren’t that many tasks that programs can do as well as human beings, and not many programs that can be automated without the help and work of humans. Which means that any company bragging about automated solutions is likely hiding a much larger shadow workforce supporting those solutions, like the one Facebook employs through Cognizant.
Such arrangements are endlessly common in Silicon Valley. Magically convenient services and devices are often subsidized not just by money-burning investors but also by exploitative labor arrangements. Amazon purchases arrive quickly in part because the company’s warehouse workers are relentlessly tracked and don’t take bathroom breaks; Uber rides are cheap in part because the median hourly wage of an Uber driver is $10. Obviously, being a paid Uber driver is no closer to being a chained-up child than riding in an Uber is to being in paradise, but you can begin to understand the bargain being struck by the citizens of Omelas in Le Guin’s story.
The truth is that “software margins” (or what investors hope will eventually be software margins) are rarely achieved solely through automation and innovation. Most Silicon Valley titans, especially the software giants that have arisen over the last two decades, have become adept at externalizing their costs. Users contribute content for free. Contractors work for cheap. The burden of moderating content has for the last ten years been borne by someone — in some cases under-compensated contractors, in some cases users moderating content themselves for free, in some cases the victims of abuse or harassment, and, in some cases, the public sphere as as whole. Just rarely Facebook. If Facebook’s shadow-workforce practices — which have been widely reported by journalists and studied by academics well before the Verge’s story this week, and which are no different than content-moderation practices on many social networks — are being singled out now, it may be because the platform’s conveniences no longer seem worth the full social cost.