I didn’t talk to anyone else from our cohort. I wasn’t here to make friends, I told myself – after all, wasn’t that how things had gone south at my last job? Thanks to my having been so, shall we say, sociable, I was now stuck with a blocked credit card. The main reason I’d applied for a job at Hexa was because their hourly rate was twenty percent higher than at the call center I was working in at the time.
The ad hadn’t said much else – apart from a salary indication, it only offered a succinct job description: Hexa was looking for ‘quality assurance workers’ – I had to look up what that meant, but for twenty percent more pay I would have been happy to pick up garbage. At the interview, which wasn’t particularly in depth, I was told that Hexa was just a subcontractor. In actuality, I would be ‘evaluating content’ for a large and powerful tech company whose name, they told me before I’d so much as touched a contract, I was not ever, under any circumstances, allowed to mention. I soon learned that this platform – your defendant – determined all of our rules, working hours, and guidelines. And all of the posts, images, and videos we’d be reviewing had been reported as ‘offensive’ by users or bots on this specific platform and its subsidiaries. On the first day of our weeklong training, we, the October cohort, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to please, did our very best not to mention this actual employer, until we discovered that our trainers, a guy and a girl who, they told us, had started out as moderators themselves – thereby suggesting, whether they meant to or not, that this kind of ascent was within the realm of possibility for all of us (a motivating prospect that I think compelled some of the people from our cohort to stay with Hexa longer than was good for them) – both used the name of the platform freely. The platform feels this, they said, The platform allows that, and we soon began to understand that we were mainly supposed to maintain secrecy from the outside world. Here, in the office tower where Hexa was based, safely tucked away in a business park with its own bus stop, we were among equals, brethren in a secret society. This training was an initiation, a hazing ritual to make sure we were fit for admission. At least, that’s what I believed back then.
We were given two manuals that first day, one with the terms and conditions of the platform and one with the guidelines for moderators. We didn’t know at the time that those guidelines changed constantly and that the tome we received was already outdated when it was put into our hands. We weren’t allowed to take the manuals home with us, so we learned by doing. On the first day of training, a series of text-only posts appeared on our screens, and then, from day three, photos, videos, and livestreams. Each time, the question was: Is it okay to leave this up on the platform? And if not, why not? That last part was the trickiest. The platform doesn’t allow people to post things like ‘All Muslims are terrorists,’ because Muslims are a PC, a ‘protected category,’ just like women, gay people and, believe it or not, heterosexuals. ‘All terrorists are Muslims,’ on the other hand, is allowed, because terrorists are not a PC and besides, Muslim isn’t an offensive term. A video of someone flinging their cat out the window is only allowed if cruelty is not a motive; a photo of someone flinging their cat out the window is always allowed; a video of people kissing in bed is allowed as long as we don’t see any genitalia or female nipples; male nipples are permitted at all times. A hand-drawn penis in a vagina is allowed; digital drawings of vulvas are not allowed; a naked child can only be shown if the image pertains to a news story, unless it’s about the Holocaust; pictures of underage Holocaust victims with no clothes on are forbidden. A picture of a gun meets the standards, but not if the gun is being offered for sale. Death threats against a pedophile are allowed; death threats against a politician are not; a video of a religious zealot blowing themselves up in a daycare center should be removed, on the grounds that it’s terrorist propaganda, not because it depicts violence or child abuse. If we selected the wrong category, our assessment was considered incorrect, regardless of whether or not the post needed to be taken down. We reviewed two hundred posts a day that first week (yes, once we’d been hired we would have to do a fair amount more than that), and at the end of each day we were shown our accuracy scores. Hexa aimed for an accuracy score of 97 percent, and initially I was frustrated when I didn’t get above 85. Until I started sneaking peeks at Kyo’s screen. Kyo, who may have been ten years younger than me – the ballpoint doodles on his backpack told me he’d probably only just finished high school – often sat next to me, and his score was never over 75 percent, which was somewhat encouraging. But when Alice told me at the bus stop on day four that she’d correctly evaluated a whopping 98 percent of her ‘tickets,’ I decided to lay off the beer that night to see if I’d do any better the next day.
I don’t know how Sigrid fared during those first few days. If you asked me when I truly noticed her for the first time, I would say it was on the last day of our training, during our exam. It was a rather strange exercise, I thought, a kind of oral exam, but in front of the entire cohort. One by one we were called up to the front of the room. We’d all be shown a video or an image and then the person whose turn it was had to say why it did or did not comply with the guidelines. Alice was shown footage of a baby that was put down on a dirt road by a grown woman and then stoned by two boys. She stood there in her oversize denim jacket, leaning on one crutch, cool as a cucumber, and passed with flying colors: ‘Child abuse, subcategory violent death, maybe – however, no glorification in the caption, so leave it up, but flag it as alarming.’ Sigrid did well too, but what struck me more than anything was the way she stood there. Whereas the others all spoke with a slightly questioning inflection but didn’t otherwise sound that different from usual, Sigrid assumed a confident pose, surveying us with clasped hands like a butler welcoming his master’s guests. ‘What we have here,’ she said, loudly and enunciating clearly, ‘is a case of sexual content, with a female nipple occurring at the three-minutes-and-four-seconds mark. The areola is clearly visible, which means this post must be removed on account of containing female nudity, although the caption – ‘I hope it hurts’ – implies there is also sadism involved. It seems to me that both reasons for removal would be correct.’
There was something profoundly comical about the way Sigrid spoke to us, smiling, briefly fixing each of us in her gaze. As if she was messing with us, ridiculing the guidelines – I think that our trainers also wondered for a moment whether she was taking her task seriously. But her answer was correct, and Sigrid’s reaction when they told her she’d passed – she laughed and kept nodding over and over, as if she still had to convince herself that she’d done well – showed that she had in fact been serious. This was her way of addressing a crowd, and when she told me weeks later, behind the lockers, that she’d previously worked in the hospitality industry, suddenly her final presentation made sense.
In case you’re curious: My own presentation didn’t go as well as I’d expected. I got a video of a guy whose arm was on fire. The flames seemed to be spreading to his back, but the fragment was brief and the context was vague. I had them play it again, hoping I’d be able to see how it was the arm caught fire, but no. Was I looking at a violent crime, an accident, a joke, or a political statement? If it was a political statement, the video would need to be left up, and wrongly removing it would be a violation of free speech. I had to ask the trainer to play it a third time, this time with the volume turned all the way up. That was the right move, as it turned out. Everyone could hear the man screaming now, high and shrill like a girl – a sound I’d never forget, but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. No, standing there, across from the entire cohort, I was mainly just bummed that I hadn’t understood sooner what we were dealing with here. It took the edge off my frustration when one girl had to leave the room during her assignment – a video of a man fucking a Rottweiler – and didn’t come back until ten minutes later, her eyes red. In the end we were all hired, though, even the girl who walked out.
Alice was the only one who respectfully declined. And maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but I truly believe that was my greatest disappointment that whole week.
Image © Descrier
This is an excerpt from We Had to Remove This Post, out with Picador.