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Facebook moderators facing toxic content told to take up ‘karaoke and painting’, Committee hears

A whistleblower has told a Dáil committee of the need for proper supports and better workers’ rights.

Isabella Plunkett, a content moderator for Facebook, has spoken out against working conditions in the role
Isabella Plunkett, a content moderator for Facebook, has spoken out against working conditions in the role

FACEBOOK MODERATORS WERE advised to take up “karaoke and painting” to cope with their exposure to extreme content on the platform, a whistleblower has said.

The social media giant outsources the job of its content moderators, whose role is to keep the platform safe by monitoring it for toxic content such as terrorist attacks, child abuse, self harm and graphic violence.

Workers are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, which unions say could be illegal, meaning they are unable to speak about their experiences with friends and family.

Whistleblower Isabella Plunkett has told a Dáil committee that workers need proper psychological supports, new limits on their exposure to toxic content and an end to non-disclosure rules.

She said: “The content is awful. It would affect anyone. It finally started to get to me.

“I have horrible lucid dreams about all things I’ve seen.
“For months I’ve been taking antidepressants because of this content.

“My job is to train the algorithm. Facebook’s fantasy is that one day human content moderators will no longer be required.

“That means I’ll get all kinds of content. Hate speech, bullying, graphic violence, suicides, abuse, child exploitation and the list goes on.

“Some my colleagues have it even worse, they’re working child abuse queues, self-harm queues all day.

“A manager tells them that they should limit their exposure to two hours maximum a day but this isn’t happening.”

Plunkett told the Dáil Committee on Trade that instead of clinical mental health supports, workers are offered “wellness coaches”, to cope with their exposure to the toxic material.

She said: “To help us cope, they offer us wellness coaches. These people mean really well but they’re not doctors.

“They suggest karaoke and painting. But sometimes you don’t always feel like singing frankly.

“I got referred to the company doctor once and I was supposed to hear about a follow up but I haven’t heard anything since.”

Plunkett said staff are operating in a “climate of fear” and said she was afraid to appear before the Committee because “Facebook have confused us and undermined our belief in the right to speak”.

In addition staff say they were not allowed to work from home during the pandemic, and were not offered any explanation as to why they could not do so.

Plunkett said she was instead told not to come into contact with her mother, who has had cancer on two occasions.

Facebook content moderators are not directly employed by the company, and earn around half the pay of their staff, the Committee heard.

But the campaign group Foxglove told the Committee that Facebook would be unable to function without them.

Spokeswoman Cori Crider told the Committee: “I can put it no better than an engineer did at Facebook.

“Content moderators are the people literally holding this platform together, they are the ones keeping the platform safe.”

Foxglove, a group of lawyers and tech experts, have been campaigning for better working conditions for Facebook moderators.

Crider called on politicians to intervene in the situation, saying “light touch regulations of social media has failed”.

‘Chilling effect’

Fionnuala Ní Bhrogain of the Communications Workers Union warned of the “chilling effect” non-disclosure agreements have on employees.

She said two employees were contacted to remind them of the agreements prior to the meeting of the Committee today.

She said: “From the very start of their employment, this has had a chilling effect and creates an atmosphere where workers fear retaliation, meaning that they do not feel they can vindicate their right to raise legitimate issues and concerns in their workplace.

“We have been advised that workers are frequently reminded of the existence of these agreements and that they are prohibited from discussing any and all aspects of their work, whether that be with the trade union representative or even with their own families.

“Social media platforms and their outsourcing partners exploit moderators’ lack of legal training to make demands for secrecy that are possibly unlawful.

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“Two moderators received messages seeking to reassert the secrecy from one of the two outsourcing firms in advance of this hearing.

“This climate of fear has chilled workers participation in legitimate democratic processes and is unacceptable.”

Foxglove raised these issues in a meeting with Tánaiste and Trade Minister Leo Varadkar in January.

However, they said his response to them arrived only at 7pm a day before today’s Committee meeting, and thus they were unable to submit it in evidence to the Committee.

Covalen, the company outsourced by Facebook for its content moderation, said: “We value our employees and the vital work they do.”

It said its wellness coaching team are “highly-qualified professionals, holding a range of third-level qualifications including at Masters and PhD level, in the areas of psychology, counselling and psychotherapy”.

It said employees can access six free sessions with a psychotherapist or counsellor in their area, and that the company will pay where employees are referred to a doctor.

The company said the use of non-disclosure agreements “is a normal and widespread business practice in every sector”.

There should be no instances where employees are not given copies of the agreements, Covalen said.

On the issue of working home during the pandemic, a spokesperson said the work was considered an essential service under government guidelines.

“Employees with underlying conditions are not required to work from the office, they are working on content that can be reviewed at home.

“Some employees who are living with vulnerable people are also working from home, this is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” the statement said.

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