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Inside Facebook, the second-class workers who do the hardest job are waging a quiet battle

U.S. contractors are behind a campaign to air grievances about unsatisfactory working conditions and inadequate counseling.

Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post)

AUSTIN — The thousands of people who do the bulk of Facebook’s work keeping the site free of suicides, massacres and other graphic posts are not Facebook employees. As contractors employed by outsourcing firms, these content moderators don’t get Facebook’s cushy six-month maternity leave, aren’t allowed to invite friends or family to the company cafeteria, and earn a starting wage that is 14 percent of the median Facebook salary.

But for the past seven months, roughly a dozen moderators in the United States have been spearheading a quiet campaign inside the social media giant to air their grievances about unsatisfactory working conditions and their status as second-class citizens. The contractors, who have not previously spoken publicly about their efforts, are using their access to Facebook Workplace, the social network’s internal communication system, to wage their battle. The moderators, who work for Facebook through their employer, Accenture, have also been having heated conversations with Accenture management over working conditions.

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In the posts and conversations, the contractors have protested micromanagement, pay cuts and inadequate counseling support while doing some of Facebook’s most psychologically taxing jobs. Thousands of employees have seen or commented on the Workplace messages, according to a Washington Post review of them.

A counselor in Austin, who is one of five on staff for roughly 450 moderators spread across several offices in the Texas capital, said the job could cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as vicarious trauma.

“I mean this non-facetiously: why do we contract out work that’s obviously vital to the health of the company and the products we build?” a full-time Facebook product manager who read one of the letters on Workplace asked his colleagues in a chat thread.

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In becoming more vocal, moderators are starting to recognize their centrality to the reputations of some of the world’s wealthiest companies — and expanding a conversation about labor rights to a workforce that has historically operated in the shadows. Facebook, Google-owned YouTube, and Twitter uphold content moderation as a key component in the fight against abuse of their services by actors such as Russian operatives and violent extremists. In the past couple years, the companies have hired through outsourcing firms thousands of moderators, who watch or read traumatic posts about suicides, mass murders and child pornography, and must quickly make a decision about whether to leave them up or take them down based on whether they violate the companies’ policies.

“[Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg talks about us all the time, but then we’re not even on his payroll,” one moderator involved in posting the letters said in an interview.

Tech giants don’t include moderators or other contractors such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers in their official headcounts, though all contractors make up at least 40 percent of the workforce at companies such as Google and Facebook. And until recently, operations involving moderation were so secretive that none of the companies that use these workers disclosed site locations and names of outsourcing firms. That secrecy, also enforced through strict confidentiality agreements that prevent workers from talking about the job, posting about work locations or inviting visitors to the office, increases the sense of isolation among moderators — though companies say it is for their own safety because the decisions they make are controversial.

Among Silicon Valley firms, Facebook in particular has recently made efforts to improve conditions for moderators, including guaranteeing access to counseling services for workers worldwide, allowing unlimited “wellness time” during which workers can receive counseling, and instructing outsourcing firms not to pressure moderators to meet quotas. (The moderators interviewed by The Post say that in practice, their wellness time is far more restricted and that constant measurement for accuracy is as pressurizing as a quota.) The company employs four psychologists globally who design “resilience” programs for moderator mental health.

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“Finding the right balance between content reviewer well-being and resiliency, quality, and productivity to ensure that we are getting to reports as quickly as possible for our community that is reporting content or might need help is very challenging at the scale we operate in,” Facebook spokeswoman Carolyn Glanville said. “We are continually working to get this balance right and improving our operations.”

Accenture said in a statement that it regularly offers content moderators opportunities to advance and wage increases. “We proactively take input from our people and use that input to help shape their experience — and we work closely with Facebook to address,” Accenture said. “As a talent and innovation-led organization, helping our people achieve their aspirations is a priority.”

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Facebook is under pressure to preserve its reputation among its own workforce as a good place to work, at a time when morale has sagged because of scandals involving privacy lapses and misinformation regarding the U.S. presidential election. Some of the letters on Workplace have been posted via full-time Facebook employees who are sympathetic to the issues facing the contract workers.

“When the people shouldering the burden of dealing with the worst things that happen on our platform are treated this poorly it speaks pretty poorly about who we are,” a Facebook employee commented on the internal chat board.

Facebook now employs 15,000 contractor moderators worldwide, the most of any tech company. About 3,000 of them work side-by-side with Facebook employees in the company’s offices.

The moderators in Austin behind the Workplace campaign work on an Accenture-dedicated floor inside a Facebook office with colorful murals and free snacks. In many ways, such proximity between the contract and full-time workers makes them feel disparities more acutely.

“We live in this Facebook world, but we’re like these weird stepchildren that they kind of claim but don’t really claim,” said a trainer, whose job is to instruct moderators how to make judgment calls in accordance with Facebook’s policies. “It’s like, we love you, and have lunch, and snacks on us, but please know you are going back to your auntie’s house at the end of the day.”

The moderators spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs. (One of their letters was published by Business Insider in February, and other Facebook moderators in a Phoenix office voiced their complaints to the Verge.) They say they are planning to issue a list of demands in the coming weeks, including for affordable health insurance and opportunities for raises — problematic issues in this rapidly gentrifying city, where Silicon Valley firms have large satellite offices.

In Austin, moderators say the starting wage for moderators is $16.50 an hour; some work side jobs such as driving for Uber to make ends meet. Another moderator said she has had to borrow money from full-time workers to pay her cellphone bill and bus fare. Moderators have limited benefits, compared with Facebook employees, where the median salary is roughly $240,000 annually, according to the research firm Equilar.

“I never take a day off,” said a moderator who was involved in posting the letters. She said she works 40 hours a week for Accenture and another 12 delivering groceries on weekends, giving her little time for psychological recovery. “I can’t afford it right now.”

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Another moderator involved in the letters said she has not received a raise in the more than two years since she started. Accenture said 80 percent of the content moderation team in Austin received a wage increase or a raise through a promotion in the past 12 months.

Unlike Facebook employees, who are known as FTEs, for “full-time employees,” moderators cannot invite guests for lunch. They sit separately in the same cafeteria, moderators said, adding that they are not invited to company events such as the annual holiday party. Facebook employees get three weeks of paid vacation and unlimited paid sick days. Moderators get two weeks of paid time off, which can be used for vacation or sick time.

Stefania Pifer, a psychologist who runs the San Francisco-based Workplace Wellness Project, which consults with tech companies on moderator treatment, said that the conflicts were, at their heart, a clash between a call center model designed for low-cost labor and mechanized tasks and a feeling among workers that the burdens placed on them go well beyond that of a traditional call center employee. She said the changes social media companies were starting to make don’t always trickle down to their outsourcers.

Companies “might provide Zumba and yoga and access to a counselor,” she said. “But they aren’t thinking about how not being able to get up at any point in the day might be increasing the psychological impact — or how holding people to a rigid number of tickets or accuracy counts could be adding more harm.”

Moderators involved in the posting the letters said that even with access to counseling, the job can take a serious toll on mental health for some people — and that the psychological challenges were “harder to stomach” because of micromanagement and low pay. Some workers, for example, said nightmares and paranoid ruminations were a common reaction to the job.

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One 24-year-old moderator said that a year in, she quit watching her favorite television shows because anything violent began to trigger a panic attack. She went on psychiatric medication and stopped going out with friends. “Even my parents have noticed a change,” she said. “All I do is sleep.”

Technically, the Austin contractors workers are employed by Accenture Flex, one of several corporate subsidiaries of Accenture that hire moderators. Accenture says it offers workers unlimited wellness time, including on-demand access to counselors. Moderators disputed that their wellness time was unlimited, and showed The Post documentation from Accenture management limiting it to 45 minutes a week, or nine minutes a day.

Sometimes it’s hard for moderators to know where Facebook ends and Accenture begins. When moderators arrive at work, they log into two separate systems, one built by Accenture and the other built by Facebook — though both fastidiously track their productivity and time. They also log into separate Facebook and Accenture email accounts. The systems automatically boot them out if they take a break that lasts more than eight minutes, discouraging long bathroom breaks or chatter in the halls.

While all moderators around the world have some access to Workplace, the onsite moderators have access to the entire system, which they use to exchange messages with Facebook employees and to keep up to date with company and employee news.

Moderators’ gripes began to spill into the open in October, when a Bay Area-based moderator working on child exploitation complained on Workplace that a recent change in vendors had resulted in a pay cut from $25 to $19.37 per hour. (The worker also posted her pay stubs, which were reviewed by The Post.)

“The pride we take in saving victims, children and preventing real world harm doesn’t pay those Bay Area expenses,” the person wrote.

In February, sympathetic full-time employees posted a complaint on behalf of moderators in Austin, after Accenture managers told them they would no longer be allowed to keep their cellphones at their desks and that break times would be limited to certain hours and had to take place inside the building. In the letter, the authors called the directives “inhumane” and lamented their “secondary status in the hierarchy of the workplace.”

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Moderators said they felt it was unfair that they had to take a formal break if they wanted to make a brief personal call to check in with a spouse or child. Being prevented from leaving the building during breaks “made me feel like there is no escape from the content that we deal with,” a moderator said.

A Facebook executive responded on Workplace to say that the directive was a “misunderstanding of current policies and those of our partners” and that no new rules had been implemented.

That same month, Facebook announced plans to begin auditing its vendors. It will soon introduce software that enables moderators to blur out graphic imagery and to play videos without sound, efforts intended to give contractors temporary control over the shocking material that continuously scrolls across their workstations.

In the weeks following the February letter, the moderators posted two subsequent letters, calling for cheaper health care and opportunities for raises, as well as requesting that any new policies be communicated in writing.

In recent weeks, moderators have continued to protest on Workplace and in meetings with managers. “If every content moderator went on strike for 24 hours the company’s stock would tank,” said one of the Austin moderators behind the letters. “Yet they refuse to admit that what we do is part of their core business.”