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Tampa Facebook content moderator to lay off 556

Cognizant told the state that it plans to start letting employees go at its Carrollwood center on Feb. 26.
Cognizant’s content moderators described stressful working conditions for those who regularly reviewed graphic violence and hate speech.
Cognizant’s content moderators described stressful working conditions for those who regularly reviewed graphic violence and hate speech. [ RON BORRESEN | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2019|Updated Dec. 21, 2019

TAMPA — A total of 556 employees will be laid off early next year from a controversial facility near Carrollwood that monitors Facebook for banned content such as hate speech, bullying, threats and videos of violence against animals and children.

Cognizant Technology Solutions, a contractor for Facebook, plans to close its operation at 7725 Woodland Center Blvd., about two miles north of Tampa International Airport.

Layoffs of all employees at the center will begin Feb. 29, Cognizant director of government relations Mark O’Connell said in a letter Thursday to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

RELATED: These Tampa workers see disturbing Facebook posts so you don’t. But it takes a toll.

Cognizant has several facilities in Tampa, a company spokesman said Friday, and the layoffs affect only one of them.

“We will ensure that our associates are treated fairly and with the respect that they deserve,” Cognizant vice president for corporate communications Rick Lacroix said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “As such, we are providing impacted associates with a number of transition assistance programs, including retention bonuses, severance packages and the opportunity to participate in training and recruitment programs including various workshops and on-site job fairs.”

Cognizant’s four other centers in Tampa work with clients in medical management, claims processing and customer contact, Lacroix said. The company also works with Career Source Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Community College on technology training courses to help put students “on the path toward careers in the digital economy,” he said.

The closure was foreshadowed in October when Cognizant announced that in 2020 it will get out of the business of flagging disturbing content for Facebook and other clients.

A former employee at the Tampa site that’s being closed welcomed the news.

“While I completely understand that people are losing their jobs, I do know that the work there was pretty horrendous and the working conditions there were pretty horrendous,” said 26-year-old Clearwater resident Shawn Speagle, who quit after six months at the Tampa operation.

Cognizant, located in Teaneck, N.J., has more than $16 billion in annual revenues, enough to put it at No. 193 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies. In 2017, the company won a contract to moderate Facebook content and established content moderation sites in Phoenix and Tampa. Reuters has reported that its shift back out of that work likely means cutting 6,000 jobs out of a total workforce of 290,000 employees.

Facebook hires third parties around the globe to monitor, review and filter its content flagged by users as violating the company’s community standards. The moderation takes place at sites around the globe 24 hours a day in more than 50 languages. In October, Facebook said it would expand its use of moderators in Texas as a result of Cognizant’s departure.

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In June, working conditions in Cognizant’s Tampa office were the focus of a report by the Verge, an online magazine that covers technology. Cognizant’s moderators described stressful working conditions for those whose jobs required them to look at graphic violence and hate speech. Many said the work inflicted a psychological toll, but they had little access mental health resources that could help them with the stress.

Employees generally had no more than a high school education and many lacked the knowledge and research skills to understand and follow up on content that often concerned current events, Speagle said.

“A lot of the people just weren’t prepared and not qualified to do it,” he said. “This is not something that someone can jump into out of high school.”

The workplace itself was also chaotic and dirty, he said. Employees were banned from bringing in personal phones or pen and paper, and their schedules were staggered, so it was difficult to get to know any of your colleagues well, he said. Roaches were commonplace, and there was only one bathroom each for men and women, so they had to be cleaned multiple times a day. Employees sometimes had sex or smoked marijuana in the building or the parking lot.

Cognizant has disputed reports that its employees work in toxic conditions.

“Cognizant works hard to ensure a safe, clean, and supportive work environment for all of our associates,” Lacroix said Friday.

Still, the company has said it plans to invest $5 million to research algorithms that could help automate content moderation, reducing the need for humans to screen graphic images.

It’s good that Cognizant is changing direction, said Speagle, who described the work as ineffective and futile. He recalled his trainer showing him a video of a mouse having its genitals cut off.

Appalled, Speagle asked what would happen as a result. The trainer said the video would be marked as graphic content with the assumption that police or other third parties would hold the person who posted it to account. But he said those local authorities didn’t have the same monitoring capabilities, so such content would often be flagged over and over again, with no consequences.

“Cognizant just failed in how they were doing that, and Facebook failed in how they were doing that," Speagle said. “They just made it worse.”

In response, a Facebook spokesman pointed to a Community Standards Enforcement Report published last month. In it, Facebook said violent and graphic postings accounted for less than 3/10ths of a percent of its content. That said, it still took action on more than 20 million pieces of violent content in the three months that ended in September.

Facebook’s report, which covered problematic content in 10 categories, said Facebook found most of the violent and graphic content itself before anyone flagged it.

“Cognizant has made a decision that is best for its business, and we respect their decision to exit content review for social media platforms,” Facebook spokesman Drew Pusateri said in an email. “We appreciate the work Cognizant’s content reviewers have done and continue to do in Tampa to keep our platform safe.”

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