Facebook’s frontline content moderators smoke pot to deal with trauma

A journalist’s deep-dive into Facebook’s employment standards reveals a smokey coping mechanism

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From racism and revenge porn to snuff films, Facebook’s army of content moderators are tasked with watching humanity at its worst. Their job is to scour the social media platform for posts that violate guidelines and policy, which is no easy task considering the site clocked nearly 2.32 billion active users last year. The compensation for being the World Wide Web’s rose-coloured lens? Mental health issues and low wages, according to a report published by the Verge.

Days before the federal legalization of cannabis in Canada, Facebook lifted its moratorium preventing users from searching or promoting cannabis-related content. In an ironic twist of fate, the report explains that the platform's contract team of digital deep-divers apparently rely on a plant they once had to censor to cope with the often traumatizing duty of sifting through the internet’s most jarring content. 

On Monday (February 26), editor Casey Newton published an in-depth investigation on Vox Media’s online technology magazine detailing the accounts of current and former content moderators working at the Phoenix, Arizona facility of a Facebook contractor called Cognizant. The report paints an Orwellian picture of low-income employees punching-in each day to review and remove harrowing user posts.

The climate—for which Facebook has come under fire—is a veritable petri dish ripe for the proliferation of conspiracy theories, dark humour, and psychological trauma, reports Newton. While some in-house counseling supports are offered to staff, several employees have turned to other comforts. Along with booze and office sex, which one source calls “trauma bonding”, a number of employees cop to consuming cannabis to get through a shift.

“It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions,” Newton writes.

A former moderator Newton calls Li says he vaped cannabis daily while working for Cognizant, and apparently isn’t the only one. In fact, smoking weed to alleviate mental pressure is a regular occurrence during lunch breaks and the allotted nine-minutes for daily “wellness time”.

“I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve smoked with,” says Li in the piece. “It’s so sad, when I think back about it — it really does hurt my heart. We’d go down and get stoned and go back to work. That’s not professional. Knowing that the content moderators for the world’s biggest social media platform are doing this on the job, while they are moderating content…”

While Facebook promised to improve its compliance and audit process for third-party contractors following the exposé, the report has touched on an increasingly poignant conversation around the use of cannabis to manage workplace stress and mental health conditions.

Although most researchers are not yet ready to back decisively promotional claims, like directly prescribing cannabis as a treatment for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is evidence to support its use in alleviating symptoms of psychological stress.

A number of peer-reviewed journals have analyzed the existing anecdotal experiences, case studies, and observational reports to come to the conclusion that cannabinoid therapy does in fact help promote mental health. The current body of research suggests the plant’s therapeutic properties are not only popular with those who suffer from trauma, but also play a role in alleviating its physical manifestations.

Studies show cannabis can help diminish the negative side-effects of PTSD and other mental health disorders by elevating mood, improving sleep quality, decreasing nightmares and flashbacks, and reducing anxiety.

In the past, research exploring the role of cannabis as a treatment for mental health conditions primarily revolved around more pervasive cases—focusing on the experiences of veterans and 9/11 survivors, for example. As the nation creeps toward a society that normalizes use, an increasing number of cannabis consumption stories of average, everyday citizens are surfacing.

Yet while the plant was recreationally legalized in Canada last October, federal authorities are still hesitant to acknowledge its medicinal applications. Only a small handful of companies in the country's health insurance industry, like SunLife Financial, currently offer cannabis-inclusive coverage.

Read Newton’s full report here.

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