A woman in California sued Facebook Friday for being “exposed to highly toxic, unsafe, and injurious content during her employment as a content moderator at Facebook.”
Selena Scola was a content moderator at Facebook’s Menlo Park, California headquarters from June 2017 through March of this year, according to the lawsuit. She worked for a contractor called Pro Unlimited, Inc., which helps Facebook delete content that violates its Community Standards. Facebook has roughly 7,500 content moderators worldwide, who are tasked with deleting hate speech, graphic violence and self harm images and video, nudity and sexual content, bullying, and a host of other content that violates its policies.
Scola’s lawyers say that she developed post traumatic stress disorder as a result of “constant and unmitigated exposure to highly toxic and extremely disturbing images at the workplace,” and allege that Facebook does not have proper mental health services and monitoring in place for its content moderators. The case was filed as a class-action lawsuit, but at the moment Scola is the only named plaintiff; the lawsuit names a potential class of “thousands” of current and former moderators in California.
The lawsuit does not currently include specific details about Scola’s job and instead relies on news investigations about how content moderation works; Scola’s lawyers told Motherboard that further into the legal process she will detail them. “This complaint does not include these [specifics] because Ms. Scola fears that Facebook may retaliate against her using a purported non-disclosure agreement.”
Moderating content is a difficult job—multiple documentaries, longform investigations, and law articles have noted that moderators work long hours, are exposed to disturbing and graphic content, and have the tough task of determining whether a specific piece of content violates Facebook’s sometimes byzantine and constantly-changing rules. Facebook prides itself on accuracy, and with more than 2 billion users, Facebook’s work force of moderators are asked to review millions of possibly infringing posts every day.
"An outsider might not totally comprehend, we aren't just exposed to the graphic videos—you'll have to watch them closely, often repeatedly, for specific policy signifiers,” one moderation source told Motherboard. “Someone could be being graphically beaten in a video, and you could have to watch it a dozen times, sometimes with others present, while you decide whether the victim's actions would count as self-defense or not, or whether the aggressor is the same person who posted the video."
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The source said they are “not surprised at all” that Facebook is now facing a lawsuit. “It’s definitely a thing that some coworkers and former coworkers speak of.”
Another moderation source at Facebook told Motherboard: “I’m not surprised.”
The lawsuit alleges that “Facebook does not provide its content moderators with sufficient training or implement the safety standards it helped develop … Ms. Scola’s PTSD symptoms may be triggered when she touches a computer mouse, enters a cold building, watches violence on television, hears loud noises, or is startled. Her symptoms are also triggered when she recalls or describes graphic imagery she was exposed to as a content moderator.”
A Facebook spokesperson told Motherboard that it is "currently reviewing this claim."
"We recognize that this work can often be difficult. That is why we take the support of our content moderators incredibly seriously, starting with their training, the benefits they receive, and ensuring that every person reviewing Facebook content is offered psychological support and wellness resources," the spokesperson said. "Facebook employees receive these in house and we also require companies that we partner with for content review to provide resources and psychological support, including onsite counseling—available at the location where the plaintiff worked—and other wellness resources like relaxation areas at many of our larger facilities."
Earlier this year, when we visited Facebook’s headquarters, multiple high-level employees told us that the company is working to make the job less stressful and potentially traumatic for its moderators. The company does have specific training protocols for content moderators, though the lawsuit alleges they are insufficient.
"There’s actual physical environments where you can go into, if you want to just kind of chillax, or if you want to go play a game, or if you just want to walk away, you know, be by yourself, that support system is pretty robust"
“This job is not for everyone, candidly, and we recognize that,” Brian Doegan, Facebook’s director of global training, community operations, told Motherboard in June. He said that new hires are gradually exposed to graphic content to “so we don't just radically expose you, but rather we do have a conversation about what it is, and what we're going to be seeing.”
Doegan said that there are rooms in each office that are designed to help employees de-stress.
“What I admire is that at any point in this role, you have access to counsellors, you have access to having conversations with other people,” he said. “There’s actual physical environments where you can go into, if you want to just kind of chillax, or if you want to go play a game, or if you just want to walk away, you know, be by yourself, that support system is pretty robust, and that is consistent across the board.”
Carolyn Glanville, a Facebook spokesperson, told Motherboard in June that each office and contractor that does content moderation has mental health services, but that the types of services offered vary by country depending on what the company believes are best practices as determined by its culture.
“Whereas [in some countries] it's fine to just go walk across the hall to a counsellor, and they don't care, in other cultures, they don't do that, they would do it off hours, and other people might not know about it,” she said.
Scola’s lawsuit asks the court to create a “Facebook-funded medical monitoring program to facilitate the diagnosis and aquate treatment of Plaintiff and the class for psychological trauma, including but not limited to PTSD.”
Next, a judge in California will decide if the case has enough merit to move forward.
Update: This article has been updated with a statement from Facebook.