A Tampa facility is tasked with the harrowing job of moderating Facebook’s content

The worksite opened in 2017.


Last week, technology website The Verge released a longread detailing the brutal work situation at Cognizant Technology Solutions, a third-party Facebook content moderation site based in Tampa.

According to the story, 800 moderators at the Town & Country facility, which opened in 2017, are tasked with enforcing the social network's community standards by purging “the social network of the worst stuff that its users post on a daily basis… the hate speech, the murders, the child pornography.”

The stress of the job and pressure from supervisors to do better, however, might’ve had detrimental effects on many of the employees at the Tampa site.

The Tampa facility regularly failed to meet Facebook’s 98% accuracy target. Casey Newtown — a Silicon Valley Editor at The Verge who also wrote about Facebook contractors in February — actually pointed out that the Tampa facility’s 92% accuracy rating made it Facebook’s poorest performing site in North America.

Fed up, some employees broke their nondisclosure agreements to discuss the situation with Newtown, who traveled to Tampa in May and conducted interviews with 12 current and former managers at the Tampa site (which is hiring, according to Indeed).

One worker described an “unworldly” stress that may have played a role in a fatal heart attack that one 42-year-old employee suffered this spring. Keith Utley’s health history wasn’t detailed in the story, and Cognizant told The Verge that “There is no indication that this medical condition was work related,” but employees interviewed were let down by Cognizant’s reaction to the death (a passing mention in a work huddle).

According to The Verge, Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work. Some employees make as little as $28,800 a year, but do receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. 

The story said “contractors are required to use a browser extension to report every time they use the restroom,” but did add that they get 9 minutes a day for “‘wellness’ time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job.”

From Verge:

On the night of March 9th, 2018, Utley slumped over at his desk. Co-workers noticed that he was in distress when he began sliding out of his chair. Two of them began to perform CPR, but no defibrillator was available in the building. A manager called for an ambulance… Paramedics arrived 13 minutes after the first call, one worker told me, and when they did, Utley had already begun to turn blue. Paramedics raced Utley to a hospital. At Cognizant, some employees were distraught — one person told me he passed by one of the site’s designated “tranquility rooms” and found one of his co-workers, a part-time preacher, praying loudly in tongues. Others ignored the commotion entirely, and continued to moderate Facebook posts as the paramedics worked.

Newtown went on to talk about how Facebook has expanded its content moderation efforts to include sites in U.S. cities like Tampa, Phoenix and Austin.

The details in the rest of Newtown’s story about the Tampa facility are pretty disheartening and include bits about filthy workspaces, sexual harassment, threats of violence, marijuana use and more.

Below are some of the craziest bits, and you probably don’t want to keep reading if you are sensitive to violence or descriptions of bodily fluids.

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One contractor, Shawn Speagle, who was hired and eventually made to moderate 100-200 posts a day, described videos of people playing with human fetuses, moms encouraging toddlers to smoke weed, or clips of animal cruelty. He described the first video he saw in his new assignment as a “subject matter expert.”

Two teenagers spot an iguana on the ground, and one picks it up by the tail. A third teenager films what happens next: the teen holding the iguana begins smashing it onto the street. “They beat the living shit out of this thing,” Speagle told me, as tears welled up in his eyes. “The iguana was screaming and crying. And they didn’t stop until the thing was a bloody pulp.”

One worker, Melynda Johnson, started working at the Tampa site in June 2018 and said that, “Every bit of that building was absolutely disgusting. You’d go in the bathroom and there would be period blood and poop all over the place. It smelled horrendous all the time.”

Other contractors The Verge spoke with described workstations decorated with “boogers, fingernails, and pubic hairs.” One worker allegedly had a colostomy bag rupture while she was at work. According to the story, another employee who threatened to “shoot up the building” was put on paid leave and allowed to return before getting fired for making another threat.

Speagle — who was diagnosed with PTSD in February, according to The Verge — said that he visited Cognizant’s on-site counselor for support and was met with this response: “He just flat-out told me: ‘I don’t really know how to help you guys.”

Newtown goes on to do a great job posing questions about the social networking giant’s responsibility to its contract workers. He interviews Facebook supervisors (including Arun Chandra, whose title is vice president of scaled support), but ultimately asks a big question about the way social networks like Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube handle content moderation for their billions of users while raking in record profits.

If you have any kind of skepticism about how healthy social networks are — or aren’t — you should definitely bookmark the piece and give it a read.

Listen to a podcast about the story below.

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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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