CORK, Ireland — At the beginning of August, Facebook announced that it would be allowing all its staff to remain working from home until at least the middle of summer 2021 “based on guidance from health and government experts.”
But, at the same time, thousands of people who are tasked with making sure Facebook stays free of child abuse imagery, beheadings, and all the other horrors floating around the internet, were being told to return to the office.
Since then, in Dublin, where hundreds of Facebook moderators work, there have been at least five confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in the contractors’ offices based in Sandyford, a suburb of the Irish capital.
Like most of Facebook’s moderators, these employees do not work directly for Facebook, but for a third-party company, in this case, services company Covalen. As a result, they do not get access to the same benefits or financial remuneration full-time employees do.
And so, as cases in Ireland skyrocketed in recent weeks, and the country became one of the first in the world to re-enter a full lockdown with the government asking all but essential staff to work from home, Facebook moderators, even those who live with at-risk people, continued to be told to travel into the office.
Leaked internal audio obtained by VICE News from a virtual town hall meeting arranged by Covalen shows that some moderators are terrified to continue working in the office but will have to anyway. Other internal documents obtained by VICE News shows that moderators who previously did not work on highly sensitive content such as child abuse, terrorism, self-harm, and bestiality will now be tasked with moderating that content.
“I think every day, if I lost my husband, if anything happened to me, who could take care of my six-year-old son?” one moderator asked last week, breaking down in tears as she spoke about her fear of catching COVID-19. “Every single morning when I start, I work on child abuse and at night, I can’t sleep, I am dreaming just child abuse.”
Facebook's decision in Ireland mirrors those it has made in India and the United States: Facebook's full-time employees can continue working from home indefinitely, while its roughly 35,000 moderators who are forced to look at the most horrific content on the platform must go to the office. In the U.S., full-time employees have organized a petition demanding the company provide hazard pay to contract moderators.
Recordings of two meetings were provided to VICE News by a source inside Covalen on the condition that the names of all employees speaking remained anonymous.
“The way Facebook is dragging these workers back to the office, even with live COVID cases, is completely unacceptable,” Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove, a U.K.-based group which advocates for moderators, told VICE News. “Zuckerberg’s personal wealth has almost doubled during the pandemic, to over $100 billion. So it’s disgusting that Facebook still won’t take responsibility for the workforce who are the bedrock of the company: content moderators. What’s it going to take to get them to look after these thousands of people, and to give them the same rights as Facebook employees? A dead moderator?”
Crider added that Foxglove has been contacted by workers “at multiple Facebook sites internationally facing this same threat.”
During a 90-minute virtual meeting last Monday, McDonald presented a series of slides showing many of the issues employees had raised, though he failed to directly answer most of those questions.
Based on the questions raised by employees during the call, there is a huge amount of misunderstanding about the procedures that are in place to protect employees.
“If I get the virus [while at the office] what should I do then? Should I go back to my home and put my family at risk?” one man whose son suffers from epilepsy and has a weakened immune system, asked. McDonald did not give a direct answer.
One of the questions repeatedly raised by employees was why full-time Facebook staff are allowed to work from home, but McDonald did not address that question, even though it appeared on one of his slides.
Facebook said that comparing the work it’s full-time staff did to that of moderators was not accurate and that full-time employees were not working on live moderation queues all day.
But one current Covalen employee told VICE News that many full-time Facebook employees work very closely with moderators, reviewing and auditing the decisions they make on whether certain content should be removed. This tracks with reporting from VICE News and Motherboard—many tough decisions are "escalated" to a team of full-time staff for a final decision.
Earlier this week, one full-time Facebook employee who works closely with Covalen moderators posted on her personal Facebook page, thanking the company for allowing her to return to her home country and work there from home for the next six months.
“Facebook allowed her to work remotely, we do the same fucking job,” a current Covalen employee told VICE News.
A Facebook spokesperson said that while “content review may be an element of their work, their roles are broader and shouldn’t be compared directly.”
Facebook and Covalen both told VICE News that the work these moderators do cannot be done remotely. “Due to the nature of the work, it cannot be carried out from home,” a Covalen spokesperson said, but neither company could give a clear explanation of why this is the case, which is a major frustration for Covalen’s employees.
One former moderator in Ireland, who is now suing Facebook for PTSD believes the company’s stance is a way to avoid admitting that the content moderators have to look at is damaging.
“This is the same content that we believe causes PTSD, depression, other mental health issues in people, and Facebook is worried that people are going to be exposed to this at home, where they can't be controlled and they can't be managed, so, they're bringing them into the office forcing them to take risks forcing them to travel to work, forcing them to endanger their own families even just so that Facebook doesn't have to take on any more liability or jeopardize their lawsuits,” Chris Gray, who was diagnosed with PTSD after working as a Facebook moderator for 10 months, told VICE News.
Facebook’s content moderation sites were shuttered in March when the pandemic began spreading globally. Over the following months, some moderators continued to do their jobs, but did not have to deal with the most heinous content, dubbed “P0 content” internally.
P0 content is the most serious and graphic images and videos posted to Facebook. It includes bestiality, child abuse imagery, beheadings, terrorist attacks, suicides, and self-harm. Moderators across the globe have reported suffering from PTSD as a result of sustained exposure to this content. Facebook recently settled a lawsuit with moderators in California for $52 million while moderators in Dublin have just begun a lawsuit against the company.
On a call with employees earlier this week, McDonald, who reports directly to Facebook according to an internal organization chart seen by VICE News, could not give a straight answer when asked why traveling into the office was necessary. Internal documents obtained by VICE News say that "P0 content can only be worked from the office as the content is very sensitive … they need to be worked from the office in addition for your own wellbeing."
Facebook's former head of training previously told VICE that it has counseling at its contractors' offices, and that it has physical spaces where moderators can "chillax" if the work becomes overwhelming. Facebook has still not clearly explained publicly why this work must be done from an office, however.
In an FAQ email obtained by VICE News sent earlier this month, when asked why those employees dealing with non-P0 content had to return, the company said “everyone returned to the office in the anticipation of working P0 queues.”
While previously P0 content would have been a part of most moderators’ work, it appears that Covalen employees will now be forced to deal with much more of this toxic material.
Another document reviewed by VICE News from a Facebook employee based in Austin, Texas, said the company is “currently looking to build up a hub for P0 content with Covalen Dublin to create business continuity given our other [content review] sites are not stable right now. As there is no excess [headcount] in Covalen we need to prioritize which workflow we can pivot reps away from to support this effort.”
A screenshot of a discussion on Workspace, Facebook’s internal social network, showed two employees discussing the situation and claiming that content moderation sites in Austin, Texas, and Hyperbad, India were “down” with one employee saying: “It means they transferred the workflows from Austin and Hyd (India) to Dublin. They won’t let Covalen go home that easily.”
Facebook didn’t dispute that more P0 content would be dealt with in Dublin, but said that there were policies in place that meant employees could only see a certain limit of such content each day.
Facebook moderators in Hyperbad were forced back to the office last week despite on-going concerns about COVID-19, Rest of the World reported last week.
McDonald said during the call with employees that work being done in the office by employees of Covalen has been “deemed an essential service under the provision of information and communications and the essential services list as defined by the government.”
He didn’t say why it was deemed essential but added that the work is “vital” and is “only approved for Covalen employees to be done from the office.”
But under the Irish government guidelines for essential employees under a level 5 lockdown, there is no explicit mention of moderators in the information and communications section.
And the law under Level 5 restrictions is pretty clear: “Physical attendance at workplaces is only permitted for those providing the following services where such services can only be provided in person and cannot be delivered remotely.”
The Department of Enterprise and the Health Services Authority and the Irish Health and Safety Authority, a government body that deals with workplace safety, said they could not comment on employees at specific companies. The HSA pointed out that employees who were concerned about their safety could contact the agency.
Making the situation worse for Covalen is that a large number of employees are leaving the company and moving to rival Tiktok. The reason is that TikTok’s moderators are deemed full-time employees and get all the benefits that come with that, including working from home and expenses to set up a home office.
“They are all moving to TikTok, because…they are treated better,” one current employee said.
Facebook and Covalen declined to comment on the staffing levels in Dublin.
But if Dublin is to become a “hub for P0 content” and it is already struggling to retain staff, then it will only add to the pressure employees are already experiencing.
“It is not our fault that everybody left to go to different companies,” one staff member said during this week’s town hall meeting. “I know for a fact that there are many people on my team suffering from depression right now and you guys need to show more empathy towards your staff.”