Illustration of a man in front of a computer screen, with bare legs coming out of the screen
Illustration: Russlan

We Went Undercover in xHamster's Unpaid Content Moderation Team

VICE News reveals how a team of volunteers – including self-proclaimed porn addicts – judge the site's content and decide at a glance whether women are over 18.
October 27, 2020, 10:04am

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Germany

One day in early September, we’re arguing about how to identify a minor on one of the most visited porn sites in the world. This is an important skill for the international crew of volunteer moderators at xHamster: it’s their job to vet new picture uploads for any nude images of people under 18.

One member of the discussion is “Holger”, a user created by VICE News to infiltrate the content moderation team and observe its inner workings. Holger finds himself in a team of over 100 unpaid, voluntary workers called “the Reviewers Club”, which means he has partial control over which photos stay online and which are taken down. These decisions impact millions worldwide – xHamster is currently the 22nd most visited website globally, making it more popular than eBay. Anyone can anonymously upload photos, videos or erotic short stories to the platform.

New content means new work for the voluntary deletion team. Equipped with a 480-word manual explaining which images are permitted and which are not, the Reviewers Club click their way through thousands of new photos every day. For reasons xHamster declined to share, paid employees are now tasked with checking videos. The moderators do their work anonymously on their own private xHamster accounts, and xHamster only knows them by their usernames.

As members of xHamster’s content moderation team, we sifted through content for several weeks, studying the platform’s internal rules and speaking to others on the team. VICE News found that xHamster explicitly asks moderators to wave through content they have considerable legal doubts over. If they think something should be taken down, they’re required to be 100 percent sure it violates xHamster's (often questionable) rules before flagging it.

Pornhub Doesn't Care

Photos of suspected minors, illegal in many countries, are screened in a process that is incomplete at best. Images that appear to have been uploaded without the subject’s consent are also waved through. Our research shows how little xHamster seems to invest in protecting victims from digital exploitation, such as revenge porn. The moderators receive no money, no individual training and very little support from xHamster administrators.

Curious to discover why people would do this often harrowing job for free, we asked some of Holger’s colleagues. Niklas*, 19, from Germany, says he checks for underage photos simply because they are “forbidden”, and he’d like to protect other members from seeing them. He told us the rules aren’t clear enough to make the call on some images.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, others do the job to indulge in a personal interest. Bryan*, a janitor from London, has been a reviewer for just a few weeks. xHamster is his favourite porn site, and a place he’s spent countless hours. “I am addicted to porn and sex,” he said. “I wanted to experience something new.”

His colleague Luke*, 20, from Singapore, also joined because he thought the job would grant him certain “privileges”, like access to private profiles and content on the site. Luke has videos with titles like Hot Teen Shower 4 and Changing room voyeur uploaded to his account. In his profile, he asks if anyone knows the woman in his profile picture and where he can find more content featuring her.

VICE News emailed 67 questions to xHamster and received brief, general statements avoiding many of the issues raised. They wouldn’t comment on problems with the deletion rules, despite follow-ups. "We cannot get into specifics of our internal checking for a number of reasons," wrote Alex Hawkins, Vice President of xHamster, arguing it could give people ideas about how to circumvent the system. “Rest assured that controls and checks exist,” he said, without addressing the issues we had identified with those controls and checks.

Warning: The following text contains explicit descriptions of sexual violence.

In its terms of use, xHamster paints a pretty idyllic picture of online pornography. Content uploaders and explicitly told they need the “written consent, release, and/or permission of each and every identifiable person in your submission". Whether or not they’re asked to show proof of that consent is another question.

As well as copyright infringements, all uploads which are "unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, (…) or otherwise objectionable" are prohibited. In addition, xHamster emphasises in bold capital letters: "WE HAVE A ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY FOR PORNOGRAPHIC MATERIAL INVOLVING MINORS."

Inside xHamster: the content moderation team’s workplace

Screenshot of the "RClub", an xHamster profile that functions as a platform for content moderators

Central platform for moderators: the “friends only” profile of RClub. Screenshot: xHamster

To get into the Reviewers Club, you need two things: patience and nude photography. Users can apply by email, once they have been a member of the platform for 200 days or more. Next – in Holger’s case, at least – you need to have uploaded your own content to the platform. To pass this test, we commissioned a sex worker to take part in our research; she agreed to contribute nude footage for Holger's account. In the summer of 2020, Holger received his official invite.

Holger first had to read the moderation rules, a "manual" of 480 words and 38 example photos. The moderators communicate with each other via the profile of an xHamster account called "RClub", which had 130 friends as of October.

The console used by content moderators to rate photos.

The web interface for moderators, pixellated by VICE. Screenshot: xHamster

After logging in to xHamster, Holger could access a web interface to check new uploads with just two clicks. Each photo appears against a black background, and moderators must examine the image carefully before pressing one of 11 different buttons.

Seven buttons are for deletions – for example, if there’s a copyright infringement or a minor in the image. A photo should also be deleted if animals or excrement are visible. If you don't know what to do next, you press the "Skip" button, leaving another colleague to make the call.

Screenshot of the sheriff stars for the reviewer of the month, 1st to 3rd place

Prizes for the "Reviewer of the Month" | Screenshot: xHamster

A photo is only deleted once flagged by several moderators. If the majority of other moderators have a different opinion, the photo stays online and a mistake is recorded in Holger's personal statistics. According to an older moderator’s manual, anyone who classifies over 15 percent of photos incorrectly will permanently lose their place in the Reviewers Club.

xHamster wouldn’t say whether this rule still applies. They also wouldn’t say how many moderators have to make the same call for a photo to be deleted. According to Alex Hawkins, reports from moderators are also checked again internally. It remains to be seen what criteria this review is based on.

‘Reviewing underage is impossible’

Screenshot from the xHamster manual showing a toy doll that is supposed to represent a child and a doll that is supposed to represent an adult woman

Screenshot: xHamster, "New reviewers manual"

Nothing is harder for Holger than deciding whether a young woman in a photo might be underage. Slim physique, youthful facial features: how can you tell from one photo whether a person is 16, 18 or 23? The manual’s advice for when to delete provides little help: "The legal age of the person in the picture is questionable, with a high probability under 18. Look for details that would help you figure if it's an underage photo or not."

In other words, Holger is asked to delete an image when the probability of a minor is "high", but not when it’s "moderate".

Holger asks his colleagues in the Reviewers Club how they make these tough decisions. One replies: "The manual tells you what is not allowed, so if it’s not mentioned in the manual you should assume that it is OK.” Another writes: "Man, reviewing underage is impossible”.

Despite this tough task for moderators, xHamster wouldn’t say which extra steps the platform takes to check uploads. Instead, Hawkins says xHamster’s support team is available all day, and that content marked as problematic is not uploaded to the platform. If something uploaded violates the terms of use, he added, it will be removed. He wouldn’t shed any more light on the process.

Deciding between ‘real’ and acted crying

One sentence in the manual makes the job of these amateur reviewers particularly difficult: "Do not remove any content if you're not 100 percent sure that it's illegal to be here."

This rule encourages moderators to brush aside many concerns, and technically means Holger should press "Skip" even when he’s suspicious of content. By clicking the "Other" button, he can at least provide a written justification for why he considers a photo to be prohibited.

Another prickly issue is simulated rape. The manual only addresses violence under the heading "Other", prohibiting the following: "blood, violence, rape, extreme BDSM, real crying, real hanging". We asked xHamster how a distinction between “real” and fake crying constituted proper protection for victims of sexual violence, to no response.

Screenshot of a comment from the xHamster forum.

A discussion between moderators | Screenshot: xHamster

One common issue that the manual doesn’t address whatsoever are recordings that appear to have been taken covertly and without women’s consent. xHamster wouldn’t say whether non-consensual “voyeurism” is allowed on the platform, or why the topic is absent from the manual.

Holger’s colleagues seem to have been advised on the issue by administrators. One writes: "Hidden cam, voyeur, upskirt, all OK unless there is some other violation.” Another agrees: "I don't like it either and it's a crime here in the USA, but xHamster admin said it's voyeurism and OK."

Holger asks an xHamster administrator whether uploaders are ever actually asked to show their written permission for the upload. The administrator explains that users can be contacted if there is a copyright complaint. Such a complaint can only be made by the original rights holders, meaning moderators can’t make complaints on behalf of others.

‘DO YOU HEAR US, ADMINS????’

On the RClub profile, moderators often complain about xHamster’s poor administrative support. A discussion on the 23rd of September is particularly emotional.

"I have asked for a brand new, updated, exhaustive manual a whole bunch of times… no answer from any admin," writes one. Another replies: "DO YOU HEAR US ADMINISTRATION ???? OR… would you rather keep on collecting your paychecks? Get off your lazy asses and do something!"

xHamster Vice President Alex Hawkins told VICE News the company would be “very interested in hearing all about” the issues facing moderators, and seeing “how our service can be improved”. Later on the 23rd of September, an xHamster administrator addressed the RClub: "We are ready to consider your ideas and improvements, please send us your ideas.”

Whether Holger was witness to a successful moderator uprising that day, it’s too early to tell.

*Names changed