Facebook Defended Its Efforts to Protect the Well Being of Content Moderators

A blistering report detailed conditions at a Phoenix site run by Cognizant

Content moderation takes its toll on the people who do it Poike/iStock

Facebook responded to an explosive, detailed story by Casey Newton of The Verge on the working conditions experienced by its content moderators.

This is not the first time the issue has surfaced: A class-action suit was filed against the social network last September on behalf of Selena Scola of San Francisco, who worked as a public content contractor at Facebook’s offices from approximately June 19, 2017, through March 1, 2018, employed by staffing company Pro Unlimited.

Scola claimed in the lawsuit that she was formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing symptoms including fatigue, insomnia and social anxiety, and those symptoms are triggered by acts including touching a computer mouse, entering a cold building, seeing violence on television, hearing loud noises or being startled.

Facebook director of corporate communications Bertie Thomson said at the time: “We recognize that this work can often be difficult. That is why we take the support of our content moderators incredibly seriously, starting with their training, the benefits they receive and ensuring that every person reviewing Facebook content is offered psychological support and wellness resources. Facebook employees receive these in-house, and we also require companies that we partner with for content review to provide resources and psychological support, including on-site counseling—available at the location where the plaintiff worked—and other wellness resources, like relaxation areas at many of our larger facilities.”

However, Newton spoke with one-dozen current or former employees at the Phoenix site of Cognizant, one of the companies that Facebook outsources content-moderation tasks to, and they told a different tale.

All of the people who spoke with Newton signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant, requiring them to not discuss their work or acknowledge that Facebook is a Cognizant client.

As Newton pointed out, while the NDAs are aimed at keeping those employees anonymous to protect their safety, they also make it difficult for Cognizant and Facebook to be held responsible for working conditions.

Facebook vice president of global operations Justin Osofsky publicly acknowledged the social network’s partnership with Cognizant for the first time, also mentioning similar arrangements with Accenture and Genpact, in a Newsroom post responding to Newton’s story.

Osofsky wrote of Facebook’s efforts to bring more content moderators on board, “In order to scale this quickly, we developed partnerships with highly reputable global partners like Accenture, Cognizant, Genpact and others with good standards for their employee care. For context, Accenture, Cognizant and all of our partners work on projects for multiple clients simultaneously. Accenture employs over 450,000 people in over 200 cities globally, and Cognizant employs over 280,000 people. These partnerships are important because they allow us to work with established companies that have a core competency in this type of work and that are able to help us ramp with location and language support quickly. They have experience managing large workforces; scaling quickly for new issues and risks; and adapting with us as the risks to our community and product needs change over time. And as our needs evolve and we shift focus from an area where our work has grown more mature to an emerging area, we can work in real-time with Accenture, Cognizant and our other partners to address those needs.”

He also shared a post that went out to employees this past weekend, introducing it as follows: “We know there are a lot of questions, misunderstandings and accusations around Facebook’s content review practices—including how we as a company care for and compensate the people behind this important work. We are committed to working with our partners to demand a high level of support for their employees; that’s our responsibility and we take it seriously. We know there are going to be incidents of employee dissatisfaction or hardship that call our commitment into question, which is why we’re taking the steps outlined below to continue to set and enforce the expectations we have for our partners.”

Newton’s story went into great detail on the harsh working conditions experienced by contract employees at Cognizant’s Phoenix site, including strict micro-management of their break time, a shortage of facilities such as lockers and bathrooms and intense pressure to maintain a 95 percent accuracy rate.

Employees also told Newton about effects of the pressure of the job and the content they viewed repeatedly, including panic attacks, substance abuse (drugs and alcohol), PTSD-like symptoms and even beginning to believe the subject matter of content they are supposed to be moderating, such as the earth being flat, the Holocaust never happening and Sept. 11 not being a terrorist attack.

Newton reported that the Cognizant employees he spoke with only had access to counselors for part of the day, and once they leave the company, they are no longer eligible for support from Cognizant or Facebook.

He also pointed out that while full-time employees at Facebook average $240,000 annually, moderators at the Phoenix facility take home just $28,800 per year.

Osofsky responded in the Newsroom post, saying that Facebook’s agreements with its partners “explicitly require good facilities, wellness breaks for employees and resiliency support.”

He added that the social network’s partner-management teams “regularly” visit partner sites to observe and make changes when necessary, with those visits including one-on-one conversations and focus groups with content reviewers.

Facebook also conducts weekly calls and monthly and quarterly business reviews to assess whether its partners are meeting these goals.

Osofsky noted Facebook’s addition of Hewlett-Packard veteran Arun Chandra as a vice president leading vendor partner management efforts for global operations, including business integrity, product data operations and community operations.

And he outlined steps being taken by Chandra and his team, including a “rigorous and regular” compliance and audit process for all outsourced partners, standardization of contracts and improved partner support and communications.

Osofsky wrote, “We encourage all partner employees to raise any concerns with their employers’ human resources teams. Additionally, they can anonymously raise concerns directly to Facebook via our whistleblower hotline, and Facebook will follow up on the issue appropriately. In addition to our regular touch points already mentioned, we will continue to improve communication channels particularly with sites managed by partners. In addition to understanding partner employee concerns, other key focus areas will be to more seamlessly communicate policy updates and deliver training materials and other resources.”

He concluded, “We will regularly evaluate these roles, our needs going forward, the risks, location, mix of the workforce and many more areas.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.