Content moderators for platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have among the grisliest tasks in social media, policing illegal, violent and harmful content, often through long shifts and for low pay.
These workers are now leading the charge for better working conditions, putting pressure on platforms that have largely failed to recognise formal union representation.
A group of workers in Germany last week drafted a list of working standards for the profession, including giving staff the right to collectively bargain and join unions or works councils.
“We are confident this is just the beginning,” said Hikmat El-Hammouri of the German union Verdi. “More and more content moderators are joining us now and learning about the power they can access through trade unions and work councils.
“For too long, the big social media companies have acted like they don’t have to answer to the labour movement in Germany. They’re about to get a big wake-up call.”
Against a backdrop of brutal job losses across the technology sector, many staff have been reluctant to demand better rights.
“People are afraid of retaliation and worried, given recent lay-offs, that they cannot organise as it may impact their employment,” one TikTok employee said.
But worsening conditions and higher living costs are spurring workers to stand up against their managers and employers.
“Workers are starting to talk about unionisation more . . . it is an illustration that the rosy futuristic world of employment that tech firms tried to project has been stripped bare,” said Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s former European vice-president turned consultant on workplace culture.
However, he warned: “The increasing job cuts mean there is very little leverage for workers to organise.”
Employment contracts at TikTok include a clause prohibiting employees from discussing their salaries with each other, according to staff, which they understand to be a measure to prevent fair and equal pay.
TikTok said it fully supported employee rights and complied with “collective employment regulation, including in relation to trade unions”.
The average salary of a content moderator in the UK is about £25,000 a year, according to jobs website Glassdoor. Content moderators hired by third-party contractors report being paid close to minimum wage, and often handed the most disturbing footage. Social networks including Meta, TikTok and YouTube hire external contractors to conduct this work.
“We are being treated like machines, not human beings,” said one moderator who reviews Meta content via a third-party company. He said he suffered from health issues after repeated exposure to terrorist and suicide content on the platforms.
“I thought the job would never affect me, but after a while, it affected my mental health. Firstly, it was a lot of bad dreams, and then I got a lot of disturbing physical symptoms.”
Among the demands listed by the German moderators’ collective is a request for independent and qualified mental health support for moderators. Workers are sometimes asked to sign waivers, explicitly acknowledging the health risks of their role.
Meta said the third party companies it uses are required to pay above the industry standard, and that it audits them twice a year. These companies must provide 24/7 on-site support with trained practitioners and access to private healthcare, the company added.
One former TikTok moderator criticised the support: “They have yoga videos and stretches you can do, [and] random people you can go to who are not properly qualified, and it is not even confidential.”
TikTok said it provided psychological support to all content moderators, including independent and qualified mental health support.
How staff are monitored internally has been another issue, with moderators for TikTok and Meta telling the FT their work is tracked closely, including how many seconds it takes to review each piece of content.
“The process gave me a headache as I had to review roughly 1,000 videos a day,” said the former TikTok moderator. “The system is tracking every second of our activity [and] we will be judged on our performance . . . prioritising speed over quality.”
Another former TikTok moderator said even when the content was innocuous, it was highly repetitive and would lead to viral songs being stuck in their head constantly, affecting their sleep.
Meta and TikTok staff have been launching formal worker representation in offices in Europe through works councils, legally enforceable bodies that exist for larger companies to represent staff on matters including wages, hours and working conditions.
Franziska, chair of the German TikTok works council set up in late 2022, said it had negotiated working remotely up to three times a week and a €50 additional monthly payment for staff working from home.
She is broadly positive about the measures TikTok has introduced for content moderators but believes they should have better pay.
“Although the social media companies will state that content moderation is the front line and the most important element within these companies, it is not reflected in the payment,” she said.
“We do this to protect not only the children and the users on the platform but . . . we’re also protecting freedom of speech and democracy and protecting people from misinformation. That’s actually a very vital cog in this world that isn’t respected the way it should be.”