In 2019, Julie Candy, the newly appointed chief government of world consulting agency Accenture, held a gathering with high managers. She had a query: Ought to Accenture get out of a number of the work it was doing for a number one shopper, Facebook?
For years, tensions had mounted inside Accenture over a sure job that it carried out for the social community. In eight-hour shifts, hundreds of its full-time staff and contractors had been sorting by Fb’s most noxious posts, together with photographs, movies and messages about suicides, beheadings and sexual acts, making an attempt to forestall them from spreading on-line.
A few of these Accenture employees, who reviewed a whole bunch of Fb posts in a shift, stated they’d began experiencing despair, nervousness and paranoia. In america, one employee had joined a class-action lawsuit to protest the working circumstances. Information protection linked Accenture to the grisly work. So Candy had ordered a evaluate to debate the rising moral, authorized and reputational dangers.
On the assembly in Accenture’s Washington workplace, she and Ellyn Shook, head of human sources, voiced issues in regards to the psychological toll of the work for Fb and the harm to the agency’s repute, attendees stated. Some executives who oversaw the Fb account argued that the issues had been manageable. They stated the social community was too profitable a shopper to lose.
The assembly ended with no decision.
Fb and Accenture have hardly ever talked about their association and even acknowledged that they work with one another. However their secretive relationship lies on the coronary heart of an effort by the world’s largest social media firm to distance itself from essentially the most poisonous a part of its enterprise.
For years, Fb has been beneath scrutiny for the violent and hateful content material that flows by its web site. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly pledged to scrub up the platform. He has promoted the usage of synthetic intelligence to weed out poisonous posts and touted efforts to rent hundreds of employees to take away the messages that AI doesn’t.
However behind the scenes, Fb has quietly paid others to tackle a lot of the duty. Since 2012, the corporate has employed at the least 10 consulting and staffing companies globally to sift by its posts, together with a wider internet of subcontractors, based on interviews and public data.
No firm has been extra essential to that endeavor than Accenture. The Fortune 500 agency, higher recognized for offering high-end tech, accounting and consulting companies to multinational corporations and governments, has change into Fb’s single largest companion in moderating content material, based on an examination by The New York Occasions.
Accenture has taken on the work — and given it a veneer of respectability — as a result of Fb has signed contracts with it for content material moderation and different companies price at the least $500 million a 12 months, based on The Occasions’ examination. Accenture employs greater than a 3rd of the 15,000 folks whom Fb has stated it has employed to examine its posts. And whereas the agreements present solely a small fraction of Accenture’s annual income, they provide it an necessary lifeline into Silicon Valley. Inside Accenture, Fb is named a “diamond shopper.”
Their contracts, which haven’t beforehand been reported, have redefined the standard boundaries of an outsourcing relationship. Accenture has absorbed the worst sides of moderating content material and made Fb’s content material points its personal. As a price of doing enterprise, it has handled employees’ psychological well being points from reviewing the posts. It has grappled with labor activism when these employees pushed for extra pay and advantages. And it has silently borne public scrutiny after they have spoken out towards the work.
These points have been compounded by Fb’s demanding hiring targets and efficiency objectives and so many shifts in its content material insurance policies that Accenture struggled to maintain up, 15 present and former staff stated. And when confronted with authorized motion from moderators in regards to the work, Accenture stayed quiet as Fb argued that it was not liable as a result of the employees belonged to Accenture and others.
“You couldn’t have Fb as we all know it at the moment with out Accenture,” stated Cori Crider, a co-founder of Foxglove, a regulation agency that represents content material moderators. “Enablers like Accenture, for eye-watering charges, have let Fb maintain the core human drawback of its enterprise at arm’s size.”
The Occasions interviewed greater than 40 present and former Accenture and Fb staff, labor legal professionals and others in regards to the corporations’ relationship, which additionally consists of accounting and promoting work. Most spoke anonymously due to nondisclosure agreements and worry of reprisal. The Occasions additionally reviewed Fb and Accenture paperwork, authorized data and regulatory filings.
Fb and Accenture declined to make executives accessible for remark. Drew Pusateri, a Fb spokesperson, stated the corporate was conscious that content material moderation “jobs might be tough, which is why we work carefully with our companions to continually consider learn how to greatest help these groups.”
Stacey Jones, an Accenture spokesperson, stated the work was a public service that was “important to defending our society by protecting the web secure.”
Neither firm talked about the opposite by title.
A lot of Fb’s work with Accenture traces again to a nudity drawback.
In 2007, hundreds of thousands of customers joined the social community each month — and lots of posted bare photographs. A settlement that Fb reached that 12 months with Andrew Cuomo, who was New York’s legal professional normal, required the corporate to take down pornographic posts flagged by customers inside 24 hours.
Fb staff who policed content material had been quickly overwhelmed by the amount of labor, members of the staff stated. Sheryl Sandberg, the corporate’s chief working officer, and different executives pushed the staff to seek out automated options for combing by the content material, three of them stated.
Fb additionally started taking a look at outsourcing, they stated. Outsourcing was cheaper than hiring folks and supplied tax and regulatory advantages, together with the flexibleness to develop or shrink shortly in areas the place the corporate didn’t have workplaces or language experience. Sandberg helped champion the outsourcing thought, they stated, and midlevel managers labored out the main points.
By 2011, Fb was working with oDesk, a service that recruited freelancers to evaluate content material. However in 2012, after information web site Gawker reported that oDesk employees in Morocco and elsewhere had been paid as little as $1 per hour for the work, Fb started in search of one other companion.
Fb landed on Accenture. Previously referred to as Andersen Consulting, the agency had rebranded as Accenture in 2001 after a break with accounting agency Arthur Andersen. And it needed to achieve traction in Silicon Valley.
In 2010, Accenture scored an accounting contract with Fb. By 2012, that had expanded to incorporate a deal for moderating content material, notably exterior america.
That 12 months, Fb despatched staff to Manila, Philippines, and Warsaw, Poland, to coach Accenture employees to kind by posts, two former Fb staff concerned with the journey stated. Accenture’s employees had been taught to make use of a Fb software program system and the platform’s pointers for leaving content material up, taking it down or escalating it for evaluate.
What began as a number of dozen Accenture moderators grew quickly.
By 2015, Accenture’s workplace within the San Francisco Bay Space had arrange a staff, code-named Honey Badger, only for Fb’s wants, former staff stated. Accenture went from offering about 300 employees in 2015 to about 3,000 in 2016. They’re a mixture of full-time staff and contractors, relying on the placement and job.
The agency quickly parlayed its work with Fb into moderation contracts with YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and others, executives stated. (The digital content material moderation trade is projected to succeed in $8.Eight billion subsequent 12 months, based on Everest Group, roughly double the 2020 complete.) Fb additionally gave Accenture contracts in areas like checking for faux or duplicate person accounts and monitoring superstar and model accounts to make sure they weren’t flooded with abuse.
After federal authorities found in 2016 that Russian operatives had used Fb to unfold divisive posts to U.S. voters for the presidential election, the corporate ramped up the variety of moderators. It stated it might rent greater than 3,000 folks — on high of the 4,500 it already had — to police the platform.
“If we’re going to construct a secure neighborhood, we have to reply shortly,” Zuckerberg stated in a 2017 publish.
The following 12 months, Fb employed Arun Chandra, a former Hewlett Packard Enterprise government, as vice chairman of scaled operations to assist oversee the connection with Accenture and others. His division is overseen by Sandberg.
Fb additionally unfold the content material work to different companies, corresponding to Cognizant and TaskUs. Fb now gives a 3rd of TaskUs’ enterprise, or $150 million a 12 months, based on regulatory filings.
The work was difficult. Whereas greater than 90% of objectionable materials that comes throughout Fb and Instagram is eliminated by AI, outsourced employees should determine whether or not to go away up the posts that the AI doesn’t catch.
They obtain a efficiency rating that’s primarily based on accurately reviewing posts towards Fb’s insurance policies. In the event that they make errors greater than 5% of the time, they are often fired, Accenture staff stated.
However Fb’s guidelines about what was acceptable modified continually, inflicting confusion. When folks used a gasoline station emoji as slang for promoting marijuana, employees deleted the posts for violating the corporate’s content material coverage on medicine. Fb then instructed moderators to not take away the posts, earlier than later reversing course.
Fb additionally tweaked its moderation expertise, including new keyboard shortcuts to hurry up the evaluate course of. However the updates had been typically launched with little warning, rising errors.
As of Could, Accenture billed Fb for roughly 1,900 full-time moderators in Manila; 1,300 in Mumbai, India; 850 in Lisbon; 780 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; 300 in Warsaw; 300 in Mountain View, California; 225 in Dublin; and 135 in Austin, Texas, based on staffing data reviewed by The Occasions.
On the finish of every month, Accenture despatched invoices to Fb detailing the hours labored by its moderators and the amount of content material reviewed. Every U.S. moderator generated $50 or extra per hour for Accenture, two folks with data of the billing stated. In distinction, moderators in some U.S. cities acquired beginning pay of $18 an hour.
Inside Accenture, employees started questioning the results of viewing so many hateful posts.
Accenture employed psychological well being counselors to deal with the fallout. Izabela Dziugiel, a counselor who labored in Accenture’s Warsaw workplace, stated she instructed managers in 2018 that they had been hiring folks ill-prepared to kind by the content material. Her workplace dealt with posts from the Center East, together with ugly photographs and movies of the Syrian conflict.
“They’d simply rent anyone,” stated Dziugiel, who beforehand handled troopers with post-traumatic stress dysfunction. She left the agency in 2019.
In Dublin, one Accenture moderator who sifted by Fb content material left a suicide be aware on his desk in 2018, stated a psychological well being counselor who was concerned within the episode. The employee was discovered secure.
Joshua Sklar, a moderator in Austin who stop in April, stated he had reviewed 500 to 700 posts a shift, together with photographs of useless our bodies after automotive crashes and movies of animals being tortured.
“One video that I watched was a man who was filming himself raping somewhat lady,” stated Sklar, who described his expertise in an inside publish that later turned public. “It was simply terrible.”
If employees went round Accenture’s chain of command and instantly communicated with Fb about content material points, they risked being reprimanded, he added. That made Fb slower to find out about and react to issues, he stated.
Fb stated anybody filtering content material might escalate issues.
One other former moderator in Austin, Spencer Darr, stated in a authorized listening to in June that the job had required him to make unimaginable selections, corresponding to whether or not to delete a video of a canine being skinned alive or just mark it as disturbing. “Content material moderators’ job is an inconceivable one,” he stated.
In 2018, Accenture launched WeCare — insurance policies that psychological well being counselors stated restricted their capacity to deal with employees. Their titles had been modified to “wellness coaches” and so they had been instructed to not give psychological assessments or diagnoses, however to offer “short-term help” like taking walks or listening to calming music. The purpose, based on a 2018 Accenture guidebook, was to show moderators “how to reply to tough conditions and content material.”
Accenture’s Jones stated the corporate was “dedicated to serving to our individuals who do that necessary work succeed each professionally and personally.” Employees can see exterior psychologists.
By 2019, scrutiny of the trade was rising. That 12 months, Cognizant stated it was exiting content material moderation after tech web site The Verge described the low pay and psychological well being results of employees at an Arizona workplace. Cognizant stated the choice would value it at the least $240 million in income and result in 6,000 job cuts.
A couple of Accenture chief government debated doing enterprise with Fb.
In 2017, Pierre Nanterme, Accenture’s chief on the time, questioned the ethics of the work and whether or not it match the agency’s long-term technique of offering companies with excessive revenue margins and technical experience, three executives concerned within the discussions stated.
No actions had been taken. Nanterme died of cancer in January 2019.
5 months later, Candy, a longtime Accenture lawyer and government, was named chief government. She quickly ordered the evaluate of the moderation enterprise, three former colleagues stated.
Executives ready stories and debated how the work in contrast with jobs like an ambulance driver. Consultants had been despatched to watch moderators and their managers.
The workplace in Austin, which had opened in 2017, was chosen for an audit as a part of Candy’s evaluate. Town was additionally house to a Fb workplace and had giant populations of Spanish and Arabic audio system to learn non-English posts. At its peak, Accenture’s Austin workplace had about 300 moderators parsing by Fb posts.
However some employees there turned sad in regards to the pay and viewing a lot poisonous content material. Organizing by textual content messages and inside message boards, they referred to as for higher wages and advantages. Some shared their tales with the media.
Final 12 months, a employee in Austin was one in every of two from Accenture who joined a class-action go well with towards Fb filed by U.S. moderators. Fb argued that it was not liable as a result of the employees had been employed by companies like Accenture, based on courtroom data. After the decide within the case dominated towards Fb, the corporate reached a $52 million settlement with the employees in Could 2020.
For Candy, the talk over the Fb contracts stretched out over a number of conferences, former executives stated. She subsequently made a number of adjustments.
In December 2019, Accenture created a two-page authorized disclosure to tell moderators in regards to the dangers of the job. The work had “the potential to negatively impression your emotional or psychological well being,” the doc stated.
Final October, Accenture went additional. It listed content material moderation for the primary time as a danger think about its annual report, saying it might go away the agency susceptible to media scrutiny and authorized hassle. Accenture additionally restricted new moderation shoppers, two folks with data of the coverage shift stated. Any new contracts required approval from senior administration.
However Candy additionally left some issues untouched, they stated.
Amongst them: the contracts with Fb. In the end, the folks stated, the shopper was too helpful to stroll away from.
This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.
Written by Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac.