Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation

Online Content Moderation: Discussion

Ms Isabella Plunkett:

Good morning. I thank the committee for inviting me today. I have worked with Facebook as a content moderator, through one of its outsourcing firms, Covalen, for almost two years. Today I speak on behalf of hundreds of colleagues who would have come to the meeting but have been intimidated by a pervasive climate of fear at work. I speak out today to make a difference.

I was excited to work for Facebook. You would think that it is a smart career move and that you would be part of the new economy, until you realise what the costs will be to you personally. I will talk about three problems that we face.

The first is the climate of fear. It has been very hard to come here to day. My lawyers insist that it is my right and I believe that, but in my opinion, Facebook and Covalen have confused us and undermined our belief in the right to speak out. Facebook presents itself as a progressive company. There are slogans in our office that read: "Be bold and be brave". How can we be brave when our right to speak out is consistently undermined?

The second point I wish to raise is the mental health aspect. The content that is moderated is awful. It would affect anyone. It has finally started to get to me. I have horrible lucid dreams about all the things I have seen, and for months I have been taking antidepressants because of this content. My job is to train the algorithm. Facebook's fantasy is that one day human content moderators will no longer be required. That means I get all kinds of content - hate speech, bullying, graphic violence, suicides, abuse, child exploitation, and the list goes on. Some of my colleagues have it even worse. They are working on child abuse and self-harm queues all day. A manager tells them that they should limit their exposure to a maximum of two hours per day, but this is not happening. To help, they offer us wellness coaches. These people mean really well, but they are not doctors. They suggest karaoke and painting, but frankly, one does not always feel like singing, after having seen someone be battered to bits. I was referred to the company doctor once and I was supposed to hear about a follow-up appointment, but I have not heard anything since.

Finally, we are tired of the second-class citizenship. We know that it would be different if we were Facebook staff, because we have seen how Facebook staff are treated. The Facebook staff who review identical content to me can work from home and stay safe during the Covid period. My mother has survived cancer twice and I support her. When I asked to work from home to keep her safe, I was told that it was not possible. I was told that I had to come into the office and I should stay away from her. The pay of Facebook staff is more than double mine. They get sick pay. I get seven days' unpaid sick leave per year. If our work is so important, why are we not Facebook staff?

Moderators want to see action taken in respect of the following. First, content moderation is Facebook's core business and it must be valued. We should not be treated as disposable; we are not disposable. If we are "core" enough to risk our lives and those of our loved ones to come into the office, we are "core" enough to be staff. I hope the committee will investigate the practice of outsourcing. Second, the mental health care is nowhere close to good enough. Unfortunately, we cannot opt out of toxic content and we are not given real psychiatric care. It is a workplace health and safety issue and must be dealt with. Finally, the climate of fear has to end. I should not have to stand here alone------


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