As Facebook continues its legacy as one of the most hated companies in America, a recent report from The Washington Post detailed a $52 million court settlement following allegations that their failure to protect workers tasked with moderating disturbing content resulted in grave mental health conditions. This failure allegedly left one worker dead of a stress-induced heart attack and several others with severe PTSD symptoms.
Earlier this month, Facebook agreed to grant their to current and former moderators a minimum of $1,000 plus additional compensation if diagnosed with a mental health disorder caused by their work. This is understandable given they’re objected to hours of graphic content from the likes of child sexual abuse, beheadings, terrorism, animal cruelty, and “every other horror that the depraved mind of man can imagine”, according to Steve Williams, a lawyer for the plaintiffs speaking to The Guardian. He claims these additional damages could range upwards of $50,000 per person, for more than 11,000 workers across California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida since contractor teams were assembled in 2015.
The lawsuit was originally filed by former moderator Selena Scola and four fellow employees back in September 2018. Within a year's time, The Verge published two reports detailing the horrific conditions within their moderation facilities, being subjected to the harshest horrors of the world without proper content procedures and healthcare plans secured as union labor rights. Scola was among those who developed PTSD after a nine-month grind in their California facility. Another report found moderators believed their views were being radicalized towards the right after becoming “addicted to extreme content.” Others like Keith Utley, an overnight shift moderator for Facebook’s Florida facility, worked himself to death as the result of a stress-related heart attack.
“The stress they put on him — it’s unworldly,” one of Utley’s managers said at the time. “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 careless conditions at Facebook certainly made such concerns perfectly valid. The reports detail severe micro-management down to the exact time of each person’s bathroom breaks, allocating only nine minutes per day of nebulous “wellness time,” firings which could happen at any time due to minor errors per week and workers being restricted by non-disclosure agreements. Given the toxic culture which later formed in these facilities, it’s no wonder Facebook kept these “trauma floors” under lock and key.
After all, the reports go on to explain how employees began openly joking about committing suicide on site and questioning whether fired employees would seriously murder everyone in the office as some form of revenge, which later resulted in other employees openly carrying their own guns into the office to “protect themselves” from each other. Other employees began having rampant sex in the stairwells and bathrooms as some form of sadistic “trauma bonding.” And this form of workplace abuse goes for the low low price of a measly $28k salary, all the while the median Facebook in-house employee earns around $240,000 a year.
It’s hard to claim Facebook is on a noble crusade against the world’s most toxic excesses when it's being carelessly branded into the minds of their contractors, who are their most unprotected workers. Such exploitation certainly took its toll on Erin Elder, a content moderator for Facebook’s child abuse review and a fellow lawsuit plaintiff. Upon reviewing footage of a teenage girl being brutally raped by a group of men in the middle of an open sports field, causing highly evident emotional trauma, management was unable to provide any immediate resources to help. Instead, Elder was later referred to a counselor only available to talk to employees once every quarter. “It was very clear that we needed more, much more support than what we were receiving,” Elder told The Post.
It appears the workers will now finally see those basic needs met. According to the settlement, Facebook agreed to roll out changes to how content moderation is viewed, using tools such as muting audio by default and changing videos to black and white to further reduce psychological trauma. This won’t be an immediate change as only 80 percent of moderators will receive these tools by the end of the year, whereas the other 20 percent have to wait until 2021 for unspecified reasons. Additionally, the settlement ensures moderators are screened for “emotional resiliency” in hiring, that psychological information about each moderator’s workstation is collected, that workers are informed how to report workplace conduct violations, and are provided access to weekly, one-on-one coaching sessions with a licensed mental health professional as well as monthly group therapy sessions, all presumably covered by Facebook.
“We are grateful to the people who do this important work to make Facebook a safe environment for everyone,” the company said in a statement to The Verge earlier this month. “We’re committed to providing them additional support through this settlement and in the future.”
If this is true, however, it’s curious how it took workers committing to a lawsuit to hold these rights as self-evident, assuming these measures can rectify the working conditions. In her interview with the Post, Elder explains her manager was aware workers needed such help, but was informed Facebook’s partnered outsourcing company, Pro Unlimited, was not interested in providing these needs. “She agreed that we should have more support, but there was no one to hold anyone accountable to get that done,” Elder said. “Pro Unlimited was my employer, and they didn’t seem to think it was important, and Facebook’s attitude was this is Pro’s responsibility.”
This is ironic considering Pro Unlimited was not featured in the lawsuit, given the trend that small companies tend to take the legal fall for the big players. Still, the Post writer Elizabeth Dwoskin is correct in saying “the settlement barely registers on Facebook’s balance sheet,” whereas “the ongoing financial compensation may be significant for the workers” facing on-going psychological harm, especially during such an unprecedented pandemic. Although the settlement may receive further changes before the judge’s final approval, Williams claims the lawsuit may end in these upcoming months. As discovered last year by the Post, such rights are not given to workers in the Philippines who are expected to work in similar conditions, just with longer hours and more psychological harm, so don’t expect the predatory culture to leave all of Facebook anytime soon.