The ‘Ghost Work’ That Keeps Social Media Clean

Image result for The ‘Ghost Work’ That Keeps Social Media CleanA new job description has entered our lexicon: content moderator. The people who labor behind the walls of our social media feeds often make minimum wage or even less. They absorb a steady diet of offensive content, from graphic violence to child pornography and everything in between, so that others don’t have to see this on their timelines. They are considered to be ‘unskilled’ but platforms couldn’t function without them.

And while they are essential to social networks, these workers are treated as disposable by their employers. Casey Newton’s brilliant expose on the lives of Facebook moderators explained how these jobs are not “crowdsourced” – they’re outsourced. On-demand workers serve contractors who are at arm’s length from Facebook, You Tube or Twitter, though these are the companies that ultimately profit off their labor. These are the new digital sweatshops – filled with the people who do the piece work that keeps the social media economy alive.

Newton’s expose focused on the conditions faced by workers in Arizona and Florida. However  just as jobs in apparel, auto manufacturing, and customer service have been offshored, so too are the jobs of this digital economy. Workers might be physically located in centers or they might work from their homes. Either way, they’re sent a steady stream of posts to approve or flag, and sometimes have only seconds to make a decision about what stays up for public viewing.

A recent Washington Post report on moderators in the Philippines was shocking in its description of the psychological anguish that workers face after viewing this type of graphic content each day. What the story missed, however, was the way in which their situation replicates a much older pattern. This mentally and psychologically exhausting work is managed by vendors whose only incentive is to deliver curated content as quickly as possible to their customer. No breaks for employees, no support systems, low pay and poor working conditions simply make business sense.

Newton’s expose of workers in the U.S. galvanized an immediate response from the companies involved – at least when it concerned their U.S.-based workers. Facebook announced it would raise wages for its U.S. content moderators. By doing so, the company made an interesting admission that it had the ability to determine – or at least set a floor to – the employment conditions of its contractors.

As wages go up and working conditions improve, at least slightly, in Arizona and Florida, will these giant social media firms outsource the work to countries less likely to expose and protest their practices? Will they continue to fragment and isolate workers so they cannot organize and advocate for themselves?

Unlike earlier offshoring, the transfer of online work can happen instantaneously, enabling companies to tap into a vast pool of virtual labor migrants, able to work in their homes at piece rates just as long as they have an internet connection. These workers are described by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri in their brilliant new book, Ghost Work.

Labor outsourcing in the digital economy is much like systems of old for distributing piece work to home-based workers. Gigs today are handled in ways that are analogous to the textile finishing work of the early Industrial Revolution, where middlemen would drop off jobs for workers to finish in their homes. One eerie difference in the digital economy, though, is that there’s never a person coming around to collect the work at the end of the day. Systems governed by artificial intelligence mediate whether the worker will be offered more work, and under what terms.

The isolation – both geographic and virtual – of the people who perform ghost work, and the anonymity of intermediaries with whom they negotiate, will pose new challenges for organizing. The dehumanizing nature of the work they do, and its psychological toll, will further exacerbate this challenge. However, the recent news articles and academic research are a critical first step in shining a light on the conditions for workers in this digital economy.

So what must be done? First, we must recognize that this is work – and dispel the fiction that these are just individuals seeking occasional gigs via so-called ‘crowdsourcing.’ We need to take a close look at the relationship between the platform giants that profit from this type of labor, and make sure they are ultimately held accountable for conditions of work.

These jobs can be dirty, dangerous and demeaning. Companies must be obligated to follow occupational health and safety standards, including standards to protect the psychological health of their workers, and no matter where they work.

Finally, we need to support any efforts by workers in the digital economy to find and connect with one another, especially when it comes to organizing across geographic borders. The jobs are virtual. The people who do them are real. They deserve rights, protections, and workplace representation.