SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook has agreed to pay $52 million to thousands of U.S. workers who suffer the psychological consequences of reviewing posts depicting acts of suicide, murder, child abuse, and other disturbing content, lawyers for the workers said Tuesday.
The class action settlement, in which Facebook did not admit or deny harms caused to these workers, is the first of its kind, the lawyers said. It applies to any U.S.-based content moderator who has ever worked for a third-party company providing services to Facebook and its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram, a group that encompasses more than 10,000 people.
The case could potentially open the door to lawsuits from workers against other social media companies that hire large numbers of moderators, such as YouTube and Twitter.
“I am incredibly proud of the plaintiffs in this case, who put themselves in jeopardy in coming forward,” said Steve Williams, a partner at the Joseph Saveri Law Firm in San Francisco, one of several firms involved in the case. “No one had ever seen a case like this, and the jobs that people do were in some ways beyond description.”
“We are grateful to the people who do this important work to make Facebook a safe environment for everyone. We’re committed to providing them additional support through this settlement and in the future,” Facebook spokesman Drew Pusateri said in an emailed statement.
In September 2018, former Facebook moderator Selena Scola broke a confidentiality agreement and sued Facebook, alleging that she developed PTSD after working at a job reviewing disturbing content including rape, murder, and animal cruelty. The complaint, which was joined by two other moderators, argued that Facebook failed to provide a safe workplace or compensate them for the psychological harms that they endured.
The Verge first reported the settlement.
As a result of the case, every content moderator who worked for Facebook from 2015 through now will receive at least $1,000. In addition, any worker who has a diagnosis of PTSD from work is eligible to receive up to $50,000 in damages.
Facebook and other social media giants have significantly ramped up their global workforce of content moderators in response to widespread abuse by Russian operatives, drug peddlers, and other users. Silicon Valley companies now employ tens of thousands of people in at least 20 countries, including Ireland, India, and the Philippines. But the hiring is indirect, with a network of third party vendors contracting the workers, who are paid low hourly wages compared to full-time employees.
The growing workforce has also drawn closer scrutiny of working conditions. Workers have spoken with The Washington Post regarding suffering from PTSD and other forms of psychological trauma, such as paranoid ruminations, frequent nightmares, and inability to sleep. Some said their wages, between $16 and $18 per hour, were so low that they work side jobs in the gig economy to make ends meet.
Within Facebook, the treatment of content moderators is a subject of major debate, and moderators themselves have used Facebook’s own internal chat rooms to raise complaints. Some have faced retaliation for protesting.
Facebook did not respond to a question about whether the job can cause PTSD. In a company-arranged interview with Austin-based moderators last year, a trainer told The Post the job does cause PTSD. Facebook and other companies voluntarily provide free counseling through work as well as frequent breaks for workers to relieve the stress caused by the job.
The settlement barely registers on Facebook’s balance sheet, but the ongoing financial compensation may be significant for the workers, many of which have told The Post that they suffer psychological harm long after they leave the job.
The case may also open the door to future lawsuits, Williams said.
Williams said the case was hard-fought, with Facebook initially trying to use legal motions to quash the case. Governmental workers’ compensation systems generally do not apply to third party contractors, and also do not cover psychological damages, he added, leaving workers little recourse.
Overall, U.S. workers are in a better position than those in other countries. Last year, a Washington Post investigation found that workers in the Philippines are not afforded the same legal protections and tend to work longer hours with more limited psychological support.