Hi all, it’s Eric. On Friday, clothing brand North Face signed onto an advertiser boycott of Facebook Inc., joining civil rights groups’ calls for the company to crack down on hate speech. The Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and other groups charged that the social media company’s permissive stance fueled racism that endangered Black people, and demanded more intervention. So far, much of that work has fallen to a small army of content moderators, several of whom say they have contracted post-traumatic stress disorder on the job.
There’s been great reporting on the poor conditions endured by these workers, who are often employed by contract firms, and receive low wages and few benefits. Facebook in particular has taken a reputational hit for the way its moderators are treated. Then again, tech companies like Reddit Inc. and Nextdoor.com Inc. don’t pay their moderators anything at all. Instead, they rely on thousands of volunteers, who subject themselves to similar stresses, apparently due to their own sense of communitarianism.
I recently wrote a story about Reddit in particular, where moderators are now pushing back against violent imagery, endemic racism and misogyny on the platform. One Reddit moderator coded a computer program to help protect users from harassment. Another, a retired schoolteacher in her late 60s whose son initially turned her onto the site, now fills her day moderating dozens of subreddits—the company’s term for individual message boards—with tens of millions of total members. “I still don’t know why I do this at the end of the day. I never have been able to tell myself the exact reason,” said Therese Singer, the former English teacher. She asked to be identified by her maiden name because she feared retaliation online.
There’s certainly more satisfaction to be had shaping a Reddit community or your neighborhood Nextdoor page than applying Facebook’s content policies to the disconnected posts of strangers. But it has always been common for Reddit moderators to get exhausted and quit. Now, many of them are demanding the company better protect them and other users by implementing a policy banning hate speech and cracking down on corners of the site dedicated to prejudice or abuse. Absent from the list of demands of the group, which calls itself r/AgainstHateSubreddits, is to be paid for their labor.
Singer said she’d like to be paid but just doesn’t think it’d ever happen. Another moderator involved in the protest, TheYellowRose, saw good reason not to turn the activity into a job. “I don’t want to be a Reddit employee because that then means I have to follow their rules,” said TheYellowRose, who asked to be identified by her screen name because she is already the target of regular online abuse. “I reserve the right to cuss out any racist that comes in my inbox.”
Unlike Facebook moderators, both Reddit and Nextdoor volunteers feel a sense of ownership over their communities, which can aggravate tensions. At Nextdoor, some of the site’s moderators filtered out Black Lives Matter posts over the last month, citing restrictions on posts that solicit donations or violate other guidelines. This led to criticism about the censorious nature of Nextdoor’s restrictive content guidelines. Then, when Nextdoor endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement, some of its volunteer moderators were upset that they had been essentially swept up into a cause they didn’t support.
There is a middle ground between paid and volunteer approaches: Site administrators and community managers can help make moderators’ tasks more manageable and make sure their feedback is getting implemented. In their call to action, Reddit’s r/AgainstHateSubreddit (co-signed by moderators in more than 800 communities) asks the company to hire more community managers. Reddit gets the benefit of free labor. The company should be able to hire enough employees so that moderators don’t feel the need to mount another rebellion. —Eric Newcomer