Facebook content moderators are furious with their employers, accusing them of “needlessly risking” their lives during the pandemic after trying to replace them with machines and failing.
While the Silicon Valley tech-boffins you might imagine as your typical Facebook employees write code and work on new products from home, the largely outsourced staff – who do what they claim is “easily Facebook’s most brutal job” – say they are being forced back into offices where multiple staff have caught coronavirus to “(wade) through violence and child abuse for hours on end”.
Workers who get a doctor to say they’re at personal risk if they catch coronavirus are being excused, but those with vulnerable relatives “who might die were they to contract COVID” are not.
They said they’ve been brought back due to “the pressing need to moderate the masses of violence, hate, terrorism, child abuse, and other horrors that we fight for (Facebook) every day”, after attempts to use artificial intelligence (AI) to do it failed.
“The AI wasn’t up to the job,” the letter alleges.
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Facebook’s content review has always had AI at its core, after all there are only 15,000 people moderating content in more than 100 languages across close to three billion accounts (the writers of the letter claim there are actually 35,000 moderators but Facebook remained adamant it was 15,000 when asked by news.com.au).
“The lesson is clear. Facebook’s algorithms are years away from achieving the necessary level of sophistication to moderate content automatically. They may never get there,” the letter warned, though earlier this year it appeared they were at least getting better.
The moderators said the algorithms weren’t able to spot the difference between satire, journalism, and disinformation or respond quickly enough to content depicting self-harm or child abuse.
“Facebook needs us,” the open letter addressed to the founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg reads.
“It is time that you acknowledged this and valued our work. To sacrifice our health and safety for profit is immoral.”
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The letter was signed by more than 200 content moderators and was also addressed to the CEOs of professional services companies Accenture (Julie Sweet) and CPL (Anne Heraty), who are among companies Facebook outsources the “majority” of the moderation to.
UK non-profit Foxglove published the letter as part of its work to “stand up for a future where technology is used to benefit everyone, not just the rich and powerful”.
The workers said they had “no choice” but to make the letter public after upper management “refused” to “take urgent steps to protect us and value our work”, in the midst of a pandemic where revenues went up and “Mr Zuckerberg nearly doubled his fortune”.
Among some of their demands, the workers have asked to be made real Facebook employees instead of outsourced staff and be offered “real healthcare and psychiatric care” as well as hazard pay for the “mental health trauma” from looking at distressing content all day.
They claim the “wellness coaches” they’re offered 45 minutes a week with are “generally not psychologists or psychiatrists”, can’t diagnose problems or prescribe treatment, and aren’t trusted “since workers know that Facebook management (and Accenture/CPL management) ask ‘coaches’ to reveal confidential details of counselling sessions”.
Facebook spokesman Drew Pusateri told news.com.au the company does “appreciate the valuable work content reviewers do and we prioritise their health and safety”, but disputed the veracity of some of the claims made by the workers.
“While we believe in having an open internal dialogue, these discussions need to be honest,” Mr Pusateri said.
“The majority of these 15,000 global content reviewers have been working from home and will continue to do so for the duration of the pandemic.
“All of them have access to health care and confidential wellbeing resources from their first day of employment, and Facebook has exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe for any in-office work.”