Your posts. Your images. Your videos. All of these make up my circadian reality. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. And things you wouldn’t want to believe. There are thousands of drones just like me. All around the world. From San Francisco to Tampa to Kuala Lumpur to Manila. Crammed like sardines into damp, poorly air-conditioned offices. Forced to watch the most vile and abhorrent stuff on the internet. All so you don’t have to.
I’m the canary down the digital coal mine. And all I smell is carbon monoxide.
To explain, I’m a full-time content moderator for a large social media platform. I can’t say whom. But you can probably guess.
I spend my days sifting through a maelstrom of articles, images, videos and audio clips to evaluate whether they’re appropriate for the 2.3 billion of you to see in your feeds.
Beheadings. Pornography. Animal cruelty. Bestiality. Hate speech. Child abuse. Basically, all the worst impulses in humanity.
I make $29,000 a year. I see more stabbings and shootings in a week than most cops see in their careers.
Did you know that section 13 of the community standards for our client prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people? No. Of course you don’t. But I do. It’s my job to know. These policies are a New Testament bible for digital content.
I lock my belongings away in a locker. No iPhone. No paper or pens. Any means of recording someone’s personal information is prohibited.
I walk the floor, looking for an empty workstation. I find one. There are boogers and fingernails on the desk. Food crumbs scattered over the keyboard. This isn’t unusual. The cleaning staff here barely survive on minimum wage.
I log onto my desktop and click the single review tool. I select a button labelled “resume reviewing,” and dive into the queue of posts.
I hear the perennial clacking of keys. The clicking of mouses. A chorus of coughs.
If I have a problem, I raise my hand. This catches the attention of a subject matter expert walking the floor. An SME is an external contractor who has a comprehensive insight and knowledge of our client’s policies and procedures. The downside is that this time eats into my quota. If I fall behind on my quota, I get put on probation.I overhear one of my colleagues calling an SME over. They ask whether a photo of a cat dressed as Hitler is acceptable.
I log out and go on my nine minute break. I step outside for some fresh, non-filtered air. A couple of male colleagues stand outside the building. One of them is talking about a girl he slept with last night. They share a spliff, passing it back and forth. They offer it to me but I decline. We talk for a several minutes. The conversation gradually evolves into our private lives. We never speak about the things we see.
I get bored. I check my phone. Scroll through my feed. Baby photos. Wedding photos. Restaurant food photos. Birthday party photos. People flaunting their lives. The usual.
A few years ago, my niece Kara didn’t come home from school. She was nine years old. She had chocolate-coloured hair. We came up with the nickname “Milky Way.” Like the candy bar. She liked to watch The Simpsons after school and draw zoo animals with multicoloured crayons.
Every 40 seconds, a child goes missing in the US.
I helped my sister and brother-in-law put up flyers on lampposts in the neighbourhood. We gathered volunteers and trawled the community in small search parties. We looked under cars. We looked under hedges. We searched the fields. We searched the woods. We searched everywhere.
My sister made desperate appeals online. Pleading with someone to come forward. Anyone. The only people who got in touch were internet trolls.
The police investigation closed last year due to a lack of pursuable leads.
I go for dinner at my sister’s house. She and my brother-in-law exchange few words. She pokes at her undercooked chicken casserole and mashed potatoes, pushing the dead carcass aroundher plate. We make banal, perfunctory conversation about the weather. She drinks three quarters of a bottle of Rioja. She lights a cigarette.
I excuse myself and climb the stairs to use the bathroom. I walk through the hallway. A bedroom door is open, creaking back and forth. The window must be open.
I peek inside. Toys on the shelves. Teddy bears on the bed. Pictures of cartoon pigs on the walls. Saturated in dust. Frozen in time. I slam the window shut and head back downstairs.
“How’s the day job going?” my sister asks me, exhaling cigarette smoke.
“Yeah. Fine.” I reply, not really listening. My mind is replaying some of the images I’ve seen today. Round and round. Like a reinforcing loop.
My brother-in-law uses the dirty cutlery to shovel food waste into the compost bin. Scraping the plates as he does so. This grinds me.
My sister probes further, asking me for more specifics on my day to day role.
“I can’t really say, it’s…”
She asks why not.
“I, uh, I signed this thing.”
She presses me further.
“It’s just…an NDA.”
She mutters something, suggesting that sounds ominous.
I tell her it’s routine for the type of job I’m undertaking.She gradually loses interest and changes the subject to the hydrangeas she’s trying to grow in the garden.
My iPhone screen lights up piercing through the morning darkness like a lighthouse in a storm. The irritating jingle plays. It’s 6.30am. I get up and eat a breakfast consisting of a protein bar and a glass of tepid water.
I catch the bus to work. It’s overcast today, thick clouds of marshmallow white encircling above.
I scroll through Tinder. I’ve been on dates. I see men sometimes. But when you’re forced to watch videos of pornography and bestiality all day, it kind of takes the romance out of life.
I pass through the turnstile gate at work. I press my key card against the door sensor. It beeps and turns green.
The decisions I make every day are moderated on a weekly basis by a quality assurance worker. These people make $1 an hour more than I do.
If my quality score dips below a 95% success rate, I get put on probation.
I rub the stale crusts from the corner of my tired eyes. I need caffeine. I want coffee. One more item.
I move my mouse and click on the next item in the work item queue. That’s when I see it. A photograph. A row of young girls. Five of them.
My universe freezes. The keys stopping clacking. The coughing ceases.
I peer closer…
A young girl. Chocolate-coloured hair.
My heart rate surges like the erratic lines on a seismograph chart.
My hand shoots up in the air. An SME finishes up helping another moderator and walks over.
I freeze up.
“What is it?”
I point to my screen.
“What is it? Do you have a problem?”
I try to speak, but actual words evade me.
“I know that girl.”
The colour drains from his face. He looks away from the screen. Hesitating.
After a few moments, he says two words.
I sit outside a conference room.Waiting. I wait over an hour. Leaning against the wall. I press my ear to the decaying plaster, trying to overhear the muffled voices inside.
At 3.21pm, the door opens. A young woman in a cream blouse and navy pencil skirt steps out of the room. She removes her glasses.
“Please come in.”
I enter. There are four of them sat behind a table. Two men and two woman.
They tell me to take a seat.
They tell me it’s come to their attention that I’ve raised an issue.
They ask me to elaborate.
“The image…I saw. It was my niece.”
One of the men scribbles something down. The two women whisper something in each other’s ears.
“She went missing. Five years ago.”
They scrutinize me. One of the men asks me to explain what I saw.
“She’s…alive. I mean, she’s…”
They interrupt and ask if I’ve relayed this information to anyone.
I shake my head.
They thank me and tell me this is a confidential matter and that it will be reviewed internally. I’m in a state of confusion.
“What? You…We…need to tell the police,” I say.
They say that this would be an overaction. They tell me that what I’ve seen is confidential content. They tell me the release of any information to a third party would constitute a breach of our client’s data policy.
My voice quivers.
“I need to tell my…sister about this. Her husband. This is…this is…important.”
They urge me to reconsider this course of action. They tell me that to do so would be in breach of my NDA. I would be in breach of my employee contract. They tell me I could face severe litigation.
“What’s up with you? My niece might be alive and your first recourse is to threaten me with legal action?”
They tell me to calm down. They tell me that that’s not what’s happening at all. Put simply, they are trying to protect the data privacy interests of their client.
I want to stand up, march right up to them and scream in their calm, cool and collected faces.
They tell me this piece of content will be referred for an internal review and will be evaluated accordingly. They instruct me to go back to my desk and get on with my work.
They thank me for my efforts.
I drive home. Rainfall trickles down the windshield, illuminated by the orange haze of passing street lamps. An army of thoughts march through my head. My stomach convulses. I pull over and throw up beside a dumpster. My vomit looks like the colour of lobster ravioli.
I have precisely $1,698.76 in the bank. A lawyer would eviscerate me.
I get home and watch soap operas. I pluck up the nerve to call my sister. My hands tremble as I hold the handset close to my lips.
You need to tell her.
She asks me over for dinner the following evening. She’s cooking a beef pot roast in the slower cooker. I decline.
Tell her now.
I try to speak. But the words don’t come.
To do so would be a breach of your NDA and you could face litigation.
She asks if I’m okay. I sniff and tell her I think I’m coming down with something. She says there’s a bug going around. She sounds concerned.
A week later. I log in to my desktop a few minutes early this morning. Rain thrashes frantically against the office windows. Someone gets up and closes the blinds.
An SME comes over. They want to see me in the conference room. I finish what I’m doing and log out.
It’s the same four people. Two men. Two women.
They tell me they’ve conducted a thorough review of the work item in question. They tell me they have decided it does not merit further investigation or referral to the police.
I can’t speak.
They tell me the piece of content in question has been removed from the web.
My throat seizes up. I try to speak but nothing comes out. Like an opera singer suffering from extreme stage fright on opening night.
They tell me to go back to work. They tell me to focus on achieving my targets. My scores have been slipping recently but they tell me they will give me some breathing space to let me get back on track.
I go back to my desk and log back in to my slideshow of trauma.
At the end of the day, I tell my bosses that I’m quitting at the end of the week. They urge me to reconsider. They try to convince me to stay. They tell me they are creating more quality assurance roles soon.
At the end of the day, I step out into the drizzle. I gaze up at the sky and enjoy the cool, soft splashing on my cheeks.
I take out my iPhone and call my sister. She says she’s busy at work. She asks what’s wrong.
“I have something I need to tell you…”
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