Members of the Irish parliament have been listening to a very disturbing story. Facebook is a big player in the Irish tech economy but the underbelly of this giant is now being exposed. Within its entrails it is harbouring a monster.
Isabella Plunkett has worked as a Facebook content moderator for just over two years,
She has now told the parliament’s Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, about her nightmare job as a moderator, viewing graphic content up to eight hours a day. The job is so stressful that Facebook has to provide 24/7 counseling support for staff — but clearly what they do is totally inadequate. Apparently she is the first moderator to speak on the record to a government hearing anywhere in the world.
There are two horror stories wrapped in one here.
The first is the story of Isabella and all her co-workers in this role. This morning the BBC has told this in its searing detail and the nightmare is clearly still raging. Nothing that Facebook is currently doing or promising to do is solving the problem and the burden that it is asking these workers to endure.
Isabella’s job is to review posts on the platform — which can contain graphic violence, exploitation, extremism, abuse and suicide.
But what, we must ask, does it say about us as a society, as a civilisation, that we have allowed a platform to exist in our midst which is facilitating traffic like this across the world — or that can bring itself to ask a young person to expose themselves to such evil? There is a moral principle which tells us that what it is not good to desire it is not good to look at. This is for a reason — and the reason is that by exposing oneself to evil one risks being contaminated by that evil, even against one’s better judgment.
“It’s not like a normal job where you can go to work and go home and forget about it — the stuff you’re seeing is really ingrained in your mind,” she said.
Isabella processes around 100 a day – these can be videos, images or text posts on the platform. She said they often contain graphic violence, suicide, exploitation and abuse. “Every day was a nightmare,” she said, adding that the support given was “insufficient.”
“It’s not enough. I’m now seeing the content I view in work in my dreams. I remember it, I experience it again and it is horrible. You never know what is going to come next and you have to watch it the full way through because they might have violators.”
“It would follow me home. I could just be watching TV at home and think back to one of the horrible, really graphic tickets” — the terms for the units she had to watch.
Depressing for all of us is the realisation that corrupted human nature has been capable of generating the volume of evil which this exposure is now revealing. The pain and misery of Isabella Plunkett is heart-rending but the sea of pain and misery which this monstrous alien living and thriving in the body of Facebook must dismay us beyond horror. That it is so persistent decades after its mothership arrived among us is surely evidence that it is nowhere near vanquished.
The 26-year-old Plunkett says she could not speak to her friends or family about the things she saw at work due to a non-disclosure agreement which she had signed at the beginning of her contract. “It was always clear we couldn’t speak about our job, we couldn’t speak about our job to friends, family… and it’s definitely a workplace with a sense of secrecy.”
Well, it might be, but there are harmless secrets and there are lethal secrets which should not be secret — like the one the Chinese authorities kept under wraps for too long in Wuhan.
“What you’ve seen now is 15-plus years of self-regulation by Facebook,” Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove, a UK-based group that advocates for moderators, told VICE News. “You’ve basically had no regulation of something that is at least as big and as important as broadcast media. And it’s been shown not to work, not just for the conditions of this workforce but frankly for the health of the public square as a whole.”
Many of us use Facebook every day. I may also buy my newspaper in a store which peddles unspeakable merchandise on its top shelves. I may consider that this does not compromise me morally. But at what point do I draw the line? These revelations about the suffering of a young woman and the potential corruption of our society at large may be forcing us to make a choice we might rather not have to face.