NSFW

10.31.13

Meet the Facebook Police

Algorithms may rule the Internet, but they aren’t always up to snuff. Meet the group responsible for looking at—and judging—your Facebook posts.

Chances are they’ll never see the things you post on Facebook.

But cross the line—share a video of a Syrian soldier getting decapitated or a filtered, topless selfie—and you’ll meet the cops of the world’s premiere social networking site.

The junior analysts who make up the User Operations team are the human decision-makers behind the generally faceless Facebook machine. They are very real people who have been hired, oftentimes with only a few years of experience, to judge whether the videos and photos you post—or report—are potentially offensive, walking the line of propriety that would send the site spiralling into the irresponsible.

And last week, they were the ones who unwittingly found themselves in the spotlight after Facebook first revoked, then quickly reinstated, restrictions on “beheading videos” that depict gruesome footage of decapitations.

The back-and-forth caused an uproar that peaked when UK Prime Minister David Cameron called the move “irresponsible” and said Facebook “must explain their actions to worried parents.”

Facebook declined to comment for this story, but in a post on their site, the company tried to shed light on their policy. “When people share this type of graphic content, it is often to condemn it,” the company said, explaining when “beheading videos” will be allowed to stay on the site. It’s when the content is being shared “for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate violence” that Facebook decides to pull the plug. The company promised it would “take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video, and will remove content that celebrates violence,” and, “consider whether the person posting the content is sharing it responsibly.”

(These aren’t the only questions they’ve pondered. The team has also struggled with the age-old question, “Is that art?!” And were forced to weigh in on breastfeeding—is it a natural part of life or an obscene image?)

Holistic look? Responsible sharing? That’s a complicated nut to crack.

And they can never let their guard down.

When one group signs off in Menlo Park, California, their colleagues in Hyderabad, an Indian city stretched along the banks of the Musi River, sign on. There is an office in Austin, Texas. Another in Dublin, Ireland.

To join the User Operations team, according to listings on the company’s career portal, Facebook wants applicants who have a passion for online safety issues, an ability to multi-task, and are ready to face ambiguous problems. Once hired, the employees are paid an average of $43,518 a year, according to 13 former staffers who reported their salary to Glassdoor, a website where anonymous current and former employees can review their companies.

The ideal amount of experience required to land a gig on the team ranges from 1-3 years. This makes it perfect for recent graduates with lofty values, worldly ideals, and an interest in “solving challenging problems and—most importantly—helping to prevent them,” to cite a common refrain in the listings.

Speaking to The Daily Beast earlier this year, a Facebook spokesperson described the team’s’ important role in the site’s daily operations, saying “Our dedicated User Operations Team reviews millions of pieces of this content a day to help keep Facebook safe for our nearly billion users.” She continued, “Our policies are enforced by a team of reviewers in several offices across the globe,” adding that they look at hundreds of thousands of reports every week.

It’s a challenging, complex system.

Detailing the process in a note posted last summer, “What Happens After You Click ‘Report’,” the company explained that the team is made up of four units focused on certain types of offenses and reports: safety, hate and harassment, access, and abusive content.

“When a person reports a piece of content, depending on the reason for their report, it will go to one of these teams,” the note says. “For example, if you are reporting content that you believe contains graphic violence, the Safety Team will review and assess the report.”

“Entry-level jobs in User Operations at Facebook consist of answering customer service inquiries and evaluating abuse complaints for site content such as images, groups, and pages,” a user of Quora writes of the position. “Successful employees go on to work on more specialized iterations of the same work, such as evaluating hate speech,” the alleged former staffer adds.

Most current and former team members who anonymously shared their experiences on Glassdoor look upon their jobs positively, giving it—and the company they work for—an average of four out of five stars.

Reviews come from Dublin-based ex-Googlers (“leaving Google to come to Facebook has been the best decision I ever made”), optimistic current employees who can’t think of any downside who appreciate the culture built on feedback, where “all levels are very receptive to listen to your opinion. no bureaucracy, transparent, impactful,” and people happy to work with “some of the best brains in the industry.”

“We are all so busy, there is no time for politics and BS. We are solving huge problems and the work we do is played out on such a huge scale. Having this level of impact and being part of a relatively tiny team means you can really feel the value of the work you do. I love that we do not hyper hire, I love the fact that we hire such great people, people with a sense of purpose and some of the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” one current employee writes of his or her position on the team.

There are, to be sure, negative reviews of the position as well, which some say can be boring, stressful, and a drain on their work/life balance.

One former Facebook employee, who called the position a “very negative experience,” said the problem was the positions difficulty.

“The job is quite fun but can be extremely stressful, as you deal with any kind of violent, pornographic, very graphic content and there’s no concrete support whatsoever for employees,” the former employee writes. “You might be told at 5.30 pm that there are still 500 reports about suicidal content lying in the queue (oh yes, you’ll sleep very well that night).”

Another says, “Work life balance can be at times poor. No one is really putting a gun to my head to work this hard, but I feel a sense of duty to our teams and our users.”

And then there’s this User Operations Specialist in Hyderābād, India, who can only think of one major downside: “Free food and calories :).”