Philippine workers are on the front lines of the battle to keep the Internet safe, but at what cost?


-We’ve covered,
in the last few years, the crisis that’s enveloping
the technology industry — Russian meddling, live suicides,
incoming regulation, and basically how this industry that has grown to touch
everyone’s life, how it has run roughshod
with our data. And now the consequences
are becoming apparent, and it seems like it’s this
big moment of reckoning. The Post broke the story
of the Russian ads on Facebook. This was the most critical story
that’s ever come to my beat. You could just see
that things were turning — the conversation about
smartphone addiction, the conversation
about livestreaming suicides, are these products good
for the world, censorship. And it just changed
almost overnight. -Very small amount of the
content influenced the election, in any way, I think,
is a pretty crazy idea, right? And it’s —
-Right after the election, Mark Zuckerberg goes onstage
and dismisses the idea that fake news had anything
to do with the election. Even though on the outside,
they’re telling the world, “This could never have had
an impact on the election,” they’re actually starting
to do a forensic analysis of what happened. The night before the hearings,
Facebook announces, “Okay, we’re going to hire
10,000 moderators to moderate content,” and then they upped
that to 20,000. -We’re gonna have more
than 20,000 people working on security and content
review by the end of this year. So it’s going to be coupling
continuing to grow the people who are doing review in these
places with building AI tools, which we’re working
as quickly as we can on that, but some of the stuff
is just hard. -And, then, very shortly after, Google makes almost
an identical announcement. I call them up after
these announcements, and, again, I asked
my same questions that I asked earlier
that year — “So, where are you
gonna get these people? Where are you gonna hire them? How are they trained?
How much are they paid? Where do they work?” Like, nothing. You get no information. And yet, they’re touting
this workforce in Congress as the key to their strategy
for saving democracy and protecting themselves. You know, if you’re a reporter and someone doesn’t
give you information, that’s always a red flag, and that always makes you
hungry for more. I did find out that a lot
of the workers were based
in the Philippines, the hub
of a call-center economy, and there’s this whole new kind
of job — content moderator. The job boards are just
filling up with openings. It’s just exploded. It’s this boom for content
moderation for this kind of job. So at that point, I thought, “Okay, we should go
to the Philippines, ’cause, you know,
it’s a boom town for Silicon Valley’s
dirty work, and yet, we’ve never heard
these people’s voices. We don’t know what the impact
of the job is on them.” Manila is an enormous
megacity full of skyscrapers, but the skyscrapers
all have American names. You know, there’s JPMorgan. There’s Citigroup. There’s Accenture. They have more malls
in the Philippines than any other place
in the world. There’s over 100 malls
in Manila alone. Google, Twitter, and Facebook,
and others are located in malls. So we spent a lot of time
hanging out in the mall, near the Baskin-Robbins and
the Uniqlos and European brands, hanging out
in these smoking areas, and learning just what the
rhythm of their life was like. When I first met Lester,
I said, “You know,
why do you want to talk to me”? And he said, “Well –”
he says, “You know, I just — people shouldn’t be
doing this job.” He was, like, really clear.
He was like, “I would tell anybody
who started this job that, ‘You think it’s not
going to affect you, but it starts to affect you, and it can affect you
in really bad ways. ‘” If you have
this routine exposure to watching people
commit suicide, and you’re somebody
who struggled with depression or anxiety, you may start thinking
about suicide yourself. It’s so well-known
to tech companies that this is a problem that
it comes up in their training. It’s called suicidal ideation. He had thought about suicide
in his 20s. He’s now in his 30s.
He had thought about suicide. He had not attempted suicide. But it was something that he had
thought about, but he really thought
that he had gotten over it. And then he realized that as
he started doing the job, and he said he saw beheadings,
murders. But for him, it was like
the suicides were a big trigger, because he had been
depressed before. We talked to more than
three dozen moderators around the world,
and I can tell you that that’s not
an uncommon thing. And I wouldn’t say for everyone,
because there’s plenty of people who told us
they were not affected, but there seems to be
a portion of people who are seriously
affected by this job. He now says that, even all these
months later, when he goes to, like, a tall building
in the Philippines, he starts to think,
“What if I jumped”? We talked to one person who
actually did attempt suicide, and we talked to several people
who had suicidal ideation. Even people who like the job
say, “Yeah, nightmares
are part of it.” Like, I asked someone,
“Have you ever had nightmares”? They said, “Well, obviously.” And this is a person
who likes the job. It’s a job that’s traumatic
and that causes a form of PTSD. These workers over there in this
foreign country, that aren’t even
full-time employees, that get paid
significantly less, and yet they’re doing
in some ways the hardest jobs of the company. And they’re protecting
the world’s free speech — you know, letting us see
our friend’s birthday pictures and not child porn. What are the responsibilities
of the companies that employ people
in this boom job? I mean, that’s the other
big takeaway from the story. This job isn’t going away. All people ever talk about
is automation and the day that technology
is going to automate workers, and it’s going to happen. No one in Silicon Valley believes these jobs
are gonna disappear. I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg
in April, and I asked him the question. I said, “Do you think that
there will be a time when you’ll have
no humans doing this job”? And he said, “There are always
going to be humans.” And it’s the same thing
when I talk to Twitter and I talk to YouTube,
that there’s this acknowledgement
in Silicon Valley that with the scale
of their problems, the human part
is not going away. And so if the human part
isn’t going away, what are our responsibilities
to these humans? And that is something
that society has not worked out.

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