What is it like to be a social media censor? I have no direct knowledge. In fact, I’d prefer to become a male prostitute than do a thing like that. (I’d rather sell my body than my personal integrity.) However, the article “The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America” does have some insights on the subject. I’ll hit the highlights and fill in some things that need to be said.
Censor boot camp
The article starts with a training exercise for a new employee:
The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed.
It’s a clever beginning, not only containing a lot of dramatic force, but also highlighting a topic that few will argue is appropriate. However, the main controversy is regarding ideological censorship, not snuff films. If all they were blocking was violence and pornography, it would be acceptable. The problem is that they also enforce the corporation’s political orthodoxy, deciding what views their users will be allowed to express.
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 — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’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 users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.
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.
That’s yet another reason why it’s better to be a rent boy than a social media censor. Then it describes a number of odd coping behaviors on the job: suicide jokes, smoking pot during breaks, and having sex in secluded areas of the building.
The moderators told me it’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: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”
So the flat earth material is banned along with all the naughty political stuff? Profound lack of scientific knowledge is a form of comedy, but the censors ruined it. So the amusing and harmless kooks who believe the earth is flat aren’t even allowed to argue their case. Of course, people who say there are dozens of genders and only one race are permitted to have peculiar beliefs about science. In fact, arguing against these beliefs is what might get someone censored by today’s social media monopolies.
Anyway, back to Chloe. After weeping in the bathroom about that scene of horror, she returns to the training. Then she’s further traumatized by having to watch a lethal drone strike video.
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 room. You will be able to pause the video, he tells her, or watch it without audio.
So apparently the company makes the trainees watch snuff films, with audio, and no way to shut them off at the point they’ve determined they’re unacceptably violent. I’m not sure if that qualifies as an abusive labor practice, but I’d rather get paid to deliver the love that dare not speak its name.
The program expands
The article describes a Suckerberg initiative to expand their pool of 4,500 employees in this role. Still focusing on the anti-violence angle here:
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 — about half of whom were content moderators.
Safety and security? That’s a clever way to put it. Golly jeepers, who possibly could object to that? Many of them are contractors, an equally clever way to describe exploited drudges. This is how a famously Leftist corporation treats its techno-proletariat:
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.
Isn’t that special? This miserly exploitation normally would make me pretty indignant, except that these are social media censors and I have more compassion for rattlesnakes. They’re really getting short-sheeted. Sure sucks to be them trying to squeak by on less than $30K, especially while the direct hires have an average income eight times that! Surely the contrast becomes even starker when compared to whatever astronomical sum it is that Suckerberg gets for being so goddamned clever.
Speaking of sucking, if I gave two BJs daily, Monday through Friday, at the going rate (so I’ve heard) of $40 a blow, then I’d make nearly the same gross annual salary as the censors. Moreover, after doing my dirty business, I could just kick back and relax all day long, enjoying much more leisure time than they do. Come to think of it, if I started every morning giving head, it would be comforting knowing that surely the rest of the day would suck less.
But while employees at Facebook’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 employees’ limited break time. And while Facebook employees enjoy a wide degree of freedom in how they manage their days, Cognizant workers’ time is managed down to the second.
Prostitutes can take a leak whenever they want, yet another benefit that “the oldest profession” enjoys, unlike social media censors.
The daily grind
Hookers get ready for work by dressing skimpy and finding a lamppost under which they can show off their goodies. For strikebreakers, as the song says, “In the evening after dark / The blackleg miner creeps to work / In his moleskin pants and his dirty shirt / There goes the blackleg miner.” So how do the even more infamous social media censors prepare?
Security personnel keep watch over the entrance, on the lookout for disgruntled ex-employees and Facebook users who might confront moderators over removed posts.
It sure sounds like they’re popular, doesn’t it? Then the article describes the crowded locker room where they have to stow their belongings. Most of the workers don’t even get permanent desks. Everything brought to the floor must be in a plastic bag. Anything that can be written on is forbidden, including gum wrappers, because of strict privacy rules.
I’ll add that these fine scruples apparently don’t prevent the Tech Tyrants from working together to ban people whose politics they don’t like. This sort of collusion might run afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act as an illegal boycott. For that matter, they have special transmission belts to rat out dissenters for the use of cyber-loafing journalists who surf the web looking for thoughtcrime while they’re supposed to be writing articles for the MSM.
Then the story goes into some of the difficulties of getting a suitable workforce:
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.
So hiring Americans might not be so much about love of country, but needing workers who can understand “cultural and political context” to perform ideological censorship. That much, of course, is a departure from the common industry practice of Third World exploited labor so they can pay the absolute lowest wages possible. Someone from Bangalore might not get what “small hats” means, realize that a picture of George Floyd holding a banana is highly irreverent, or understand naughty memes. Even if they did know that stuff, it might be difficult to get them to care, since political correctness is mostly a fetish afflicting the Western world.
Other than that, the employees have to deal with fussy metrics. They’re supposed to make rapid decisions about content that got flagged. These must be consistent with company standards, subject to spot-checking. One problem, as might be expected, is that there are a lot of gray areas. They have to split hairs often, and they lose points on their statistics whenever management scrutinizes their decisions and believes the hairs should’ve been split another way.
The canonical source for enforcement is Facebook’s public community guidelines — 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 “Known Questions,” which offers additional commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation — a kind of Talmud to the community guidelines’ Torah.
I’ll add that the Tech Tyrants typically make their user agreements remarkably vague in certain areas; effectively, the corporations grant themselves unlimited arbitrary power of interpretation to decide what their users are allowed to say. Surely this “Talmud” — perhaps a very fitting choice of words — which dictates how their system really works would make for some interesting reading. However, I’d bet a paycheck that it is not for public viewing and strictly is covered by a nondisclosure agreement, and the same goes for the “internal guidelines.” The article explains other ways of clarifying the Party Line on what speech the corporation deems acceptable, including bulletins that might get superseded hours later.
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 — a perfect accuracy score — 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.
Well, sucks to be them, doesn’t it? Much more procedural hell is described. One quality assurance worker (one rung on the totem pole higher than the moderators and responsible for scrutinizing their decisions) started bringing a gun to work after repeated threats to kick his ass in the parking lot. Packing heat is against the rules, of course, but maybe the company isn’t providing adequate security given their abysmal morale problem?
Once again, being a rent boy is better than all this. Prostitutes have to submit to a lot of unpleasant things, but micromanagement isn’t one of them.
Most of the rest of the article goes into a deeper dive on the subjects discussed earlier. There’s much about Orwellian levels of bathroom break micromanagement. Hooking up with colleagues underneath stairwells and so forth (something that must be rather difficult to pull off given their meager break times) is a coping strategy for some. For others, substance abuse gets them by. Jokes about jumping off the roof are another treasured pastime.
Other than that, many of them became convinced by the material they were supposed to be censoring. Still, they kept up their jobs as digital hall monitors anyway. Again, I can’t understand why people would pursue work that involves compromising their mind for a paycheck; “gay for pay” is more respectable.
“People really started to believe these posts they were supposed to be moderating,” she says. “They were saying, ‘Oh gosh, they weren’t really there. Look at this CNN video of David Hogg — he’s too old to be in school.’ People started Googling things instead of doing their jobs and looking into conspiracy theories about them. We were like, ‘Guys, no, this is the crazy stuff we’re supposed to be moderating. What are you doing?'”
Another problem is that The Narrative about certain notable subjects is questionable. The official story about Jeffrey Epstein’s death is rather spotty, for one of several topics that could be cited. What’s the matter with the public debating these things? One might even ask, in some instances, do certain powerful interests have a reason to hide inconvenient facts? Moreover, who do the Tech Tyrants think they are to try to make up our minds for us?
The article states that some employees acquire PTSD. One of them filed a lawsuit. For another example, months after Chloe left the company, she was at a movie and got a flashback from the stabbing video she was forced to watch in its entirety during training. I’ll add that this probably wouldn’t have happened if they’d let her turn it off as soon as it became clear that things were getting violent. Moreover, those with the ideological inclination for this job might tend toward pacifism, generally sheltered by circumstance from the harsher side of life, and perhaps wouldn’t be able to watch even a fistfight without getting triggered.
Apparently, it’s fairly common for candidates to wash out of the training program because they can’t handle all that. However, they don’t get the benefit of any psychological aftercare for enduring this kind of sadism. Anyway, if I became a rent boy, the experience surely would give me PTSD likewise. Such a job is a pain in the butt too. On the plus side, at least I’d be joining a very welcoming environment and have gay pride month to celebrate and all those cool parades.
Touring the site at last
After much preliminary research and discussion with present and former employees, the author contacts their management and is invited to show up. A day before arriving, the company put up a bunch of cheerful-looking motivational posters; surely the timing is a coincidence. Then the author chats with some high-level managers. After that was a discussion with five workers volunteering for the interview.
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 better-paying opportunities — within Cognizant, if not Facebook.
So they must’ve sounded pretty cheerful. Maybe they wanted to keep their jobs? Then the policy manager reassuringly says that things aren’t so bad; most of the stuff the employees have to review consists of rants or of pictures and videos that are merely questionable. After that, a couple of company counselors make an appearance.
When I ask about the risks of contractors developing PTSD, a counselor I’ll call Logan tells me about a different psychological phenomenon: “post-traumatic growth,” 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 women’s education activist, who was shot in the head as a teenager by the Taliban.
I suppose that’s about as good as it gets for discussing the benefits of shooting someone in the head. As far as “devil’s advocate” arguments go, Jonathan Swift would’ve been proud. Anyway, wrapping things up:
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.
“If we weren’t there doing that job, Facebook would be so ugly,” Li says. “We’re seeing all that stuff on their behalf. And hell yeah, we make some wrong calls. But people don’t know that there’s actually human beings behind those seats.”
Is that a case of Stockholm Syndrome, or was the boss still listening? Anyway, I figure the NPCs might feel better if they were getting paid more than an eighth of what the direct hires make at the Fakebook home office on the fashionable Left Coast.
The only thing that’s missing is a frank discussion of ideological bias in social media policies. The article implies that it’s delivered even-handedly. In actual fact, they made it clear that they play favorites, and did so unofficially long before. Also, it’s implied that most political censorship is about “conspiracy theories,” though cherry-picking highly disputed events overlooks extensive bias about other topics. Failing to acknowledge the controversy at the very least seems a bit like whitewashing.
In the final analysis, this is a good look into the miserable conditions under which social media censors work: low pay, micromanagement, occupational stress, and all the rest of it. Still, it’s hard to sympathize with them because of their role as enforcers of The Narrative. The MSM, the Tech Tyrants, and the new “fact-checker” racket have anointed themselves as the Orwellian Ministry of Truth. The digital hall monitors described above are some of the cogs in the machine. Although I have a great deal of sympathy for prostitutes (I’ve been accused of having a Jesus complex), I just can’t bring myself to feel compassion for professional censors. Pursuing the interests of globalist ideology, in service to soulless overpaid CEOs, they’re much like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.
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