Companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them -- a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world's social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to "well over 100,000" -- that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.
This work is increasingly done in the Philippines. A former US colony, the Philippines has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive. And moderators in the Philippines can be hired for a fraction of American wages. Ryan Cardeno, a former contractor for Microsoft in the Philippines, told me that he made $500 per month by the end of his three-and-a-half-year tenure with outsourcing firm Sykes. Last year, Cardeno was offered $312 per month by another firm to moderate content for Facebook, paltry even by industry standards. [...]
Eight years after the fact, Jake Swearingen can still recall the video that made him quit. [...] Three days in, a video of an apparent beheading came across his queue. "Oh fuck! I've got a beheading!" he blurted out. A slightly older colleague in a black hoodie casually turned around in his chair. "Oh," he said, "which one?" At that moment Swearingen decided he did not want to become a connoisseur of beheading videos. [...]
"Everybody hits the wall, generally between three and five months," says a former YouTube content moderator I'll call Rob. "You just think, 'Holy shit, what am I spending my day doing? This is awful.'" [...] "If someone was uploading animal abuse, a lot of the time it was the person who did it. He was proud of that," Rob says. "And seeing it from the eyes of someone who was proud to do the fucked-up thing, rather than news reporting on the fucked-up thing -- it just hurts you so much harder, for some reason. It just gives you a much darker view of humanity." [...]
"I get really affected by bestiality with children," she says. "I have to stop. I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee." She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.
Constant exposure to videos like this has turned some of Maria's coworkers intensely paranoid. Every day they see proof of the infinite variety of human depravity. They begin to suspect the worst of people they meet in real life, wondering what secrets their hard drives might hold. Two of Maria's female coworkers have become so suspicious that they no longer leave their children with babysitters. They sometimes miss work because they can't find someone they trust to take care of their kids.
Everything is terrible.