Geopolitics

For Facebook Moderators, The Soul-Crushing Job Must Go On

Underpaid and overexposed to what in some cases can be truly disturbing content, moderators are the invisible, human grease that keep the social media machine running. It's grueling but essential work that happens behind the scenes.

Facebook moderators, 'the clandestine guardians of what a contemporary network puts out.'
Facebook moderators, "the clandestine guardians of what a contemporary network puts out."
Maurizio Di Fazio

The message was for Mark Zuckerberg. "Without our work, Facebook would be unusable. Its empire collapses," the founder of the social media titan was told in a letter sent last year and signed by more than 200 people.

"Your algorithms cannot spot satire. They cannot sift journalism from disinformation. They cannot respond quickly enough to self-harm or child abuse," the missive went on to say. "We can."

The we, in this case, are social media content moderators. Employed not only by Facebook, but also Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and all the other major digital platforms, they are the clandestine guardians of what a contemporary network puts out. It's a crucial profession, but one that's also goes largely unseen.

Moderators are sacrificed in the chase of the illusion of complete editorial automation.

"I believe that the most difficult aspect is the condition of total invisibility in which they are forced to work — for safety reasons, but also to minimize the importance of human work," says Jacopo Franchi, author of the book Obsolete. "Today, it is impossible to establish with certainty whether a moderation decision depends on the intervention of a man or a machine. Moderators are sacrificed in the chase of the illusion of complete editorial automation."

Speed is of the essence, silence is golden

Because technology fails to grasp the way we mean some of our words — and who knows if it will ever understand them — platforms still need someone to hide the dirt under the carpet in the eyes of the billions of subscribers and advertisers. Someone, in other words, needs to take that stuff down before it infects too many monitors and smartphones.

Digital moderators are men and women without specific skills or specializations, and of any ethnicity and background. They're absolutely interchangeable workforce. To be hired, you just need to be immediately available, have a stable connection and some nerve.

They sift through and possibly delete the millions of anonymous daily posts, videos and stories reported by users. Such content includes child pornography, hate messages, fake accounts, hoaxes, revenge porn, cyberbullying, torture, rape, murder, suicide, local wars and live massacres. These rivers of mud escape the fallible dam of algorithms, and can end up making unspeakable horrors viral. These are the people that resolve machine selection errors, even if everything must appear, to the end user, to be a uniform and indistinct projection of artificial intelligence.

It's essential and misunderstood work. It's also, in many ways, barbaric. "I was paid 10 cents per piece of content," writes Tarleton Gillespie in his Custodians of the Internet. "For this amount I had to catalog the video, published by ISIS, of a boy who had been set on fire."

A former moderator said that Facebook even keeps track of their bathroom breaks.

The custodians work at a frenzied pace, deleting up to 1,500 pieces of content per shift. This happens one at a time, following the guidelines provided by the companies, the changing Community Standards (which the moderators refer to as the Bible).

If a post is in a language they don't know, they use an online translator. The important thing is to be fast: They have a few seconds to determine what needs to be removed from our feeds. Valera Zaicev, a former moderator and one of the major activists in the battle for rights in this category, said that Facebook even keeps track of their bathroom breaks. Nobody knows anything about their mandate, forced as they are to silence by martial confidentiality agreements.

"Content moderators are an example, perhaps the most extreme, of the new forms of precarious work generated and directed by algorithms," says Franchi. "Nobody can say how many there are: We are talking about 100,000 to 150,000 moderators, but it has never been clarified how many of these are hired full time by companies, how many are hired with temporary contracts by subcontracted agencies and how many instead are paid piecemeal on the "gig working" platforms."

Always answering to the algorithm

At Facebook, the most protected moderators in the United States have a stable contract paying about $15 per hour. But there are also roughly 1,600 moderators employed by the contractor Genpact in Hyderabad, India, where they are paid $6 dollars per day, according to Reuters.

The latter are part of a reserve neo-industrial army that responds at the platform's disposal, thanks to outsourcing companies like TaskUs — people in unspecified corners of the globe, paid peanuts for one gig after another.

Facebook EU HQ in Dublin, Ireland — Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/ZUMA

They face immense body and mind fatigue, commanded by an algorithm, a mathematical-metaphysical entity that never stops, and makes for an authoritarian leader.

"It is an algorithm that selects them on LinkedIn or Indeed through deliberately generic job offers," says Iacopo Franchi. "It is an algorithm that organizes social content that can be reported by users. It is an algorithm that plans review queues and it is often an algorithm that determines their score on the basis of their "mistakes' and decides on their possible dismissal."

Yes, if they are wrong in more than 5% of cases, they risk getting the boot.

For those who manage to keep their jobs, it's essential to disconnect completely in their free time. "There are thousands of moderators in the European Union and all of them are working in critical conditions for their mental health," says Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, a pressure group that assists them in lawsuits.

In 2020, Facebook paid $52 million to thousands of moderators who had developed psychological problems due to their work.

Few last more than a few months on the job before being fired for disappointing performances or leaving by their own volition because they are no longer able to observe the evil of the world without being able to do anything other than hide it.

For those who manage to keep their jobs, it's essential to disconnect completely in their free time.

The aftermath can be heavy. The accumulation of bloody visions traces a deep furrow. Who else has ever plunged so deeply into the abysses of human nature?

"Exposure to complex and potentially traumatic contents, as well as information overload, is certainly a relevant aspect of their daily professional experience, but we must also not forget the high repetitiveness of their tasks," says Massimiliano Barattucci, work psychologist and professor of organizational psychology.

"Unlike another new job, that of delivery couriers, content moderators are exposed to all sources of technology-fueled stress," he adds. "And this helps to understand their high turnover and burnout rates, and their general job dissatisfaction."

Alienation and emotional addiction to horror could be just around the corner. "A progressive cynicism can arise, a habit that allows you to maintain detachment from the shocking content they see in their work," says Barattucci. "They may develop disorders such as insomnia, nightmares, intrusive thoughts or memories, anxiety reactions, and in several cases, PTSD."

One day, in the Facebook center of Phoenix, Arizona, everyone's attention was caught by a man who threatened to jump from the roof of a nearby building, a former moderator tells The Verge. Eventually, they discovered he was a moderator, a colleague of theirs: He had walked away during one his two allowed breaks. He wanted to log off the horror.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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