Google and its video-sharing platform, YouTube, are reviewing content in the same way as all other tech giants, paying outsourcing companies to do most of the auditing, according tomedia. Accenture, which runs Google’s largest content review site in the United States, works around the clock at its offices in Austin, Texas, to clean up the “poisonous tumor” on YouTube.
A recent interview with dozens of Google content reviewers by Casey Newton, a US investigative journalist, revealed their day-to-day work and the implications. Newton’s main findings are as follows:
Google’s largest content review facility in the U.S. is in Austin, Texas, where hundreds of content reviewers act as “policemen” on YouTube;
Google has created a dedicated content review team for videos believed to contain violent extremism, and has equipped it with dozens of low-paid immigrants from the Middle East. These people are paid $18.50 an hour (about $37,000 a year, $260,000) and have not received a raise for two years;
Austin’s content reviewers were asked to watch five hours of gruesome video a day. Despite A$10, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s chief executive, last year pledged to reduce their burden to four hours a day, she failed to deliver on them;
After just six months in the job, they suffered from anxiety, depression, night terrors and other serious mental health problems, the reviewers described.
Accenture’s managers often force employees to keep working and refuse to take time off to review endless content;
Google offers different standards of care for full-time content reviewers and contractors, who have several months of paid sick leave to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues. Contractors have little paid sick leave;
Google employees are usually not informed of potential mental health problems that content reviews can cause when applying for a job. In addition, they tend to downplay the amount of disturbing content that auditors actually have to look at;
Google is experimenting with some content reviewers to see if technical interventions, such as allowing employees to watch gray-scale videos, can reduce emotional damage;
Even with first-class medical care and enviable benefits, content reviews can still cause PTSD, chronic anxiety and other long-term mental health problems among Google employees.
Newton was interviewed by Peter, one of hundreds of content reviewers at Accent’s Austin-based website. YouTube groups Peter and his colleagues by what needs to be reviewed, which it says helps content reviewers build expertise around their policies. These categories include hate and harassment, adult pornography, and so on.
Peter’s work is internally known as the “VE Team” and VE represents violent extremism. This is one of the toughest jobs Alphabet has to face. Like all content reviews involving daily violence and abuse, this has had a serious and lasting impact on those engaged in this work.
Over the past year, Peter has seen his colleagues faint from pain at work, and he has seen videos that are so heavy that he has taken two months of unpaid leave. Another colleague suffered from anxiety and depression caused by his work, had difficulty eating and had to be hospitalized for acute vitamin deficiency.
Peter, who has been in the job for almost two years, is worried about the impact it will have on his mental health. His family repeatedly urged Peter to resign. But he worries that he may not find another job with such a high salary: $18.5 an hour, or about $37,000 a year.
Peter points out that since he started working, he has lost his hair and gained weight. He has a more grumpy temper. As he drove past the building where he worked, his chest was looming in pain, even on a day off. “Every day you see someone beheaded or someone shoots his girlfriend,” he said. After that, you’d think the world was really crazy. It makes you feel uncomfortable, you feel like there’s nothing worth living for. Why are we doing this to each other? “
Like many of his colleagues, Peter is a Middle Eastern immigrant who speaks seven languages, including Arabic. Accenture relies on Peter’s language skills to accurately identify hate speech and terrorist propaganda and remove it from YouTube.
Neither Peter nor his colleagues have had a history of mental health problems before, nor have they considered the potential psychological impact the new job could have on them. Google doesn’t seem to think of that. During its tenure, the company did not provide so-called “elastic” training for employees in the field, or developed emotional tools to help process a large number of disturbing text, images and videos.
For employees most affected by violence, witnessing dozens or more murder scenes every day has serious side effects that make them increasingly anxious. The employees also talked about muscle cramps, eating pressures, and rising rental pressures. And managers refuse to let them rest, dismiss them under various pretexts, and change their shift time without warning.
Despite these effects, tens of thousands of people have signed up for content reviews as governments around the world demand more from technology companies to regulate their services. While some contractors are re-evaluating their ability to do the job, the need for content auditors appears to be expanding.
At the same time, we still lack a basic understanding of how this work affects practitioners. We know that some people on YouTube’s violent extremist content review team, as well as people doing similar work around the world, suffer from PTSD and related diseases at work, but it is not clear how much of an impact this is.