Google and YouTube moderators speak out


(dramatic music) – Part of the job description was, “You will be part of a team “that protects free speech online,” which makes it seem very heroic. It felt like you were putting
on a cape working at Google. – Over the past year, I’ve
been reporting on the lives of Facebook’s content
moderators in America and they’ve told me about their low pay, their dire working
conditions and in some cases, the long term mental health consequences of doing the work that they do. A content moderator is kind of like a police officer for the internet. If you ever see something that you think doesn’t belong on a
site and you report it, that report is gonna be
reviewed by a human being. While a lot of what they
see is really benign, like spam, for example, some
of it’s really disturbing. I’m talking about murder,
terrorism and child exploitation. Recently, I started
seeing out people who did this kind of work for Google and YouTube. I wanted to see how their
experiences compared to the ones I had heard about already. What I did learn surprised me. (dramatic music) – Part of doing our job
and how they would make us feel better about it was that, “You guys see this so other
people don’t have to see this.” (dramatic music) – Over the course of my reporting, I talked to both people who
worked at Google full time and people who had been hired on through third-party contractors. It became clear to me that
no matter who hired you, doing this job over a
long enough time period can cause significant
mental health consequences. But it also became clear
to me that there is a big difference in how
Google employees get treated and how those third-party
contractors get treated. Today, a former full-time Google employee named Daisy Soderberg-Rivken
is going on the record to talk about her experiences
as a content moderator. She had access to all the
perks and all the benefits that come with being a
full-time Google employee. But at the end of that
day, that didn’t save her from the consequences of doing the job. – I was a legal root removals associate, which is a very fancy way of saying I was a content moderator at Google. – Let’s talk about what
the job actually was. You show up, you have your orientation, you sit down at your computer,
it’s time to do your job. What is your job? – You usually start your work
by going through a queue. So you’re assigned to
a queue based on either an issue area or a geographic area. I focused on the French market, because my first languages
were French and English and I also worked on our child
sexual abuse imagery cases and our terrorism cases. – And you were working
primarily on web search, right? – Yes, we as in-house content moderators, we would usually handle more
high level, complex issues. Certain things that
were very high volumes, such as defamation and
copyright were typically sent over to contractors. They would then escalate
to us if it was kind of a gray area, but if it
was even a gray area for us, we would then escalate to our council. It was kind of levels of
how specialized we were. – At what point did you
start to feel like you were seeing more disturbing
stuff than you expected? – Very early on. They said we would be analyzing
child sexual abuse imagery but I remember clearly,
in parentheses, it said, this kind of content
would be limited to one to two hours per week, when in reality, we were understaffed,
so we would be in there sometimes five, six hours a week, which sounds like nothing,
but it’s actually… – Oh, it sounds like a lot.
– It’s a lot. – Yeah, yeah. When do you first notice
that doing this job was starting to affect your mental health? – When I was walking around
San Francisco, actually, and I was with one of
my friends and we saw a group of kids, toddlers, that were hanging on to one of those ropes so that they don’t go far. I looked at them and then,
I kind of blinked once, and suddenly, I just had a flash of images of some of the images I had
seen, children being tied up, children being raped, at that age. This is three, three years old. I kind of like stopped and
I was kind of blinking a lot and my friend had to make sure I was okay and I had to sit down for a second and I just exploded crying. She was like, “What just happened?” And I couldn’t explain
it to her and I just, these racing thoughts and
then, an instant panic attack. I was having nightmares,
I wasn’t sleeping, I had spent multiple days
just crying in the bathroom. I was having all of these panic attacks. My work productivity just dipped. Finally, my manager was like, “Listen, we really need you “to step up your productivity game.” I just snapped and I
turned to him and I said, “Do you understand what we’re looking at “and we’re not machines, we’re humans. “So we have emotions and those emotions “are deeply scarred by looking at children “being raped all the
time and people getting “their heads chopped off.” It was like there was no escape and yeah, I finally snapped and they took that as, oh, she needs to take a
second, she needs to breathe. And I was said, “No, I need to leave.” The free food, the nap
pods, all these benefits, this doesn’t mean anything if this is, if this is my day-to-day. – Daisy helped me understand
how hard this job is to do even when you work in the
greatest office in the world. But the truth is that
most people don’t work in an office half that nice. One of Google’s biggest
projects that it has to moderate, of course, is YouTube. When it comes to YouTube, Google has decided to
give most of the work of content moderation to
third-party contractors. Recently, I went to Austin,
Texas, to meet with a group of moderators who work for
Accenture on the YouTube project. Specifically, they work on
what is called the VE queue. VE standing for violent extremism. 120 times a day, they review YouTube videos
that have terrorism, graphic violence and
other disturbing content. You’re about to hear from one of them and we’ve altered the audio
to protect their identity. – [Moderator] So, at the beginning, they told you to watch some videos. You’re going to take some actions. You will apply the YouTube polices. But you don’t feel how this
is going to impact you. – In some ways, the content
moderators who do this work for Google and YouTube are treated better than the ones who work for Facebook. Most prominently, they get two
hours of break time each day. Basically, two hours of
paid leave in which they can recover from the
challenges of doing this work. But, most of them aren’t able to take a full two hours a day. – [Moderator] They’re forcing
you, micromanaging you to have to be sitting on the
desk five hours and a half. And if you don’t, there is
going to be a punishments. The schedules will be changed. You will be on night shift. And this is going to
affect my wellness time. I will never take my three hours. (dramatic music) – [Casey] What kind of things do they do that make life hard? – [Moderator] They always have
complaints about everyone. You know, like, I have something on you. If you make any problems, you know what? This is the reason that I can fire you. – [Casey] Right, right. – [Moderator] One of the
things that they always saying is if we miss one agent
tomorrow, we get another 10. – [Casey] So they’re
constantly reminding you how easily you can be replaced? – [Moderator] Yes. The problem that’s they
feel stuck somewhere. They can’t leave the work because they have responsibilities. He have bills right now he have to pay. – [Casey] So it sounds like
people feel kind of trapped. – [Moderator] They are. Yeah, that’s a good word. – When I brought all this to Google, the company told me
that it takes the health of its workers very
seriously and pointed out that it offers onsite counseling to both its full-time employees
and to its contractors. I think it’s worth pointing out, though, that even though Daisy had
access to that onsite counseling, the counselor she had ultimately told her to go seek outside help
and get a therapist. Daisy also eventually took medical leave and ultimately got an emotional
support animal to help her. It’s a dog named Stella. – Hi five. Found a psychiatrist
and I found a therapist. The psychiatrist put
me on antidepressants. I was diagnosed with
chronic anxiety and PTSD. And then, I started seeing
a therapist just to talk through these things and she said, “Is legal removals
associate anything close “to a content moderator?” And I said, “It is a content moderator.” And she said, “Trust me
when I say you are not “the first person that I’ve seen “with this particular issue.” – It seems like recovering
from doing this job has itself been a full time job. – Oh, yeah. Whenever someone talks to
me about content moderation, I say, “I’m a recovering
content moderator.” They’re like, “Oh, you
talk about it like it’s, “it’s like alcoholism.” And I said, “Well, you
never fully recover.” – One of the things that
is so interesting to me about your story is that you
are one of the very few people I’ve talked to who did
content moderation as a full time employee of a
company, rather than a contractor. You had access to six months
of paid medical leave. A contractor who’s moderating
for YouTube in Austin doesn’t have that same access. – I had those months to
think about my choices and to think about ways out without having to deal with unemployment
or having to deal with how am I gonna pay rent. I know those contractors
don’t have that opportunity. – The contractors I’ve
talked with in Austin ,are making $18.50 an
hour, about $37,000 a year. Does that seem like a high
enough wage given some of the risks involved? – Absolutely not. There’s never gonna be enough
money to make this okay. I’m gonna be clear about that. But, I think that you need to
pay contractors proportional to what they’re going through,
the impact of their work, because this is so vital to the business. – Let’s put a fine point on it. If Google can’t exist without
the work that you did, right, like you were responding
to official legal requests from governments–
– Yup. – That would have
otherwise shut Google down in their country–
– Yup. – If you didn’t respond. – Exactly. – So this is very high stakes work. And yet, for some reason, these companies have just
chosen not to value it. – Yeah, I think that
contractors are so essential, especially considering
how much volume we have. We need as many people as
we can doing this work. We also need to change the overall system and the overall structure of
how this work is being done, how we support these people,
how we give them tools and resources to deal with these things. Or else, these problems
are only gonna get worse. (dramatic music) – Hey, thanks for watching
and don’t leaven any comments. It will only create more work
for the content moderators. But, if you want to know
more about what’s going on with our wayward tech platforms,
I write a daily newletter called, The Interface,
about the collision between big social networks and democracy. You can find it and subscribe for free at theverge.com/interface. (dramatic music)

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