Frances Haugen Expresses Solidarity with Content Moderators
Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Daniel Motaung came from very different parts of the social media platform’s ecosystem, but when they met for the first time in front of an audience in London Tuesday, they shared a message for anyone who has witnessed wrongdoing: Speak up.
Haugen, a former employee at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters who leaked thousands of pages of internal documents last year, was joined onstage by Motaung, a whistleblower who was fired from his job as an outsourced Facebook content moderator in Kenya after leading a unionization effort. He currently lives in poverty in his home country of South Africa, and is pursuing a legal case against Facebook’s parent company Meta, and Sama, the outsourcing company that directly employed him.
“Daniel’s struggle is part of a long history of the struggle of labor,” Haugen told the audience who had assembled at King’s Place in London to hear the pair in conversation. Foxglove is an NGO legal that assists Motaung in his case against Sama and Meta. Foxglove’s co-director Cori Crider was also on the panel, along with Mercy Mutemi, Motaung’s lawyer in Kenya. Reset, an progressive lobbying group that works closely with Haugen, funded the event.
“People fighting for each other is why we have the 40 hour work week,” Haugen said. “And we need to extend that solidarity to the new front, on things like content moderation factories. This is possible. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”
Motaung (who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD) addressed an audience for the first time since he was a content moderator in a TIME investigation.
Continue reading: Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop
Motaung stated on stage that his case against Sama and Facebook was more than a legal attempt to get justice for his coworkers and himself, it was also part of his healing process. “For me, an easy way out is not an option,” he said. “It’s that drive to bring about change. It’s that drive to see justice. It’s that drive to make sure that I feel. It’s that drive to make sure that I become a human again, because I feel like a zombie most of the time.”
In one of the event’s most powerful moments, Haugen asked Motaung a series of rapid fire questions about the allegations in his lawsuit that he and his colleagues were hired under false pretenses. “If they had worded the job description and they had said, you will have to look at graphic violence every day, would you have taken the job?” Haugen asked.
“No,” Motaung replied.
“If they said you will have to watch people hurting innocent people, would you have taken the job?”
Again, Motaung’s answer was a one-word “No.”
“If they had said you will not be able to talk about how you feel after you do this, would you have taken the job?” Haugen asked, referring to the non-disclosure agreements Sama employees are required to sign.
“No,” Motaung said.
Haugen also revealed to the crowd that her PTSD is a result of medical trauma. According to Haugen, the Facebook content moderators’ non-disclosure agreements which they are expected to sign increase their risk for developing this mental illness. “One of the most important things you need to prevent PTSD is to be able, while you’re undergoing trauma, to talk about what you are experiencing,” she said. “When people sign contracts where they can’t talk to their own family members about what they are going through, you’re substantially increasing the chances they’re going to have PTSD. It’s unethical and inhumane.”
Continue reading: Inside Frances Haugen’s Decision to Take on Facebook
The effect Motaung’s illness has had on his everyday life was demonstrated shortly after this exchange with Haugen when he unexpectedly left the stage for five minutes to take some time alone.
Motaung told TIME previously that due to the nondisclosure agreements he signed, he was unable to talk with his relatives about Kenya and the reasons he’d lost so many pounds.
“I just want to be honest with you guys: PTSD is real,” said Crider, the co-director of Foxglove.
Motaung was back on the stage when an audience member asked him if he’d like to continue blowing the whistle. He gave a clear answer. “Yes I would, definitely, without a doubt. I would do it again.” He urged others to speak up, too. “The most important thing you need to know is that there are organizations out there that can back you up,” he said. “You need to come out because if you don’t you will simply die in silence, and there is nothing good about that.”
“I speak for labor. I speak for workers,” he went on. “The exploitation is across the board, it’s not only Facebook.” He hinted that he hopes to help facilitate what he called a “global union” of outsourced workers. “Right now they are standing alone, and they feel alone. It is taken as a given that they are there. It must happen. I’m sending a message to them: Unionize. Join forces. Speak.”
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