Pakistani content moderators are exhausted and stuck - Rest of World

Created time
Feb 20, 2024 12:37 PM
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  • Content moderation for Chinese platforms saw a boom in Pakistan during the pandemic when other work opportunities in tech were limited. Platforms like TikTok and Bigo Live hired in the country to try and make amends with the government, experts said.
  • Exhausted content moderators are now trying to find other work but have been unsuccessful because their experience isn’t transferable.
It was August 2020, Pakistan was under a Covid-19 lockdown, and Asif, who had just graduated with a master’s degree in project management, was struggling to find a job. At the same time, Chinese video-sharing apps like TikTok and Bigo Live were desperately scouting for content moderators in Pakistan. The platforms wanted to hire locally to appease the government, which had accused them of circulating “obscene” and “unlawful” content.
Through LinkedIn, Asif landed a job as a content moderator at Bigo Live. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, because I just wanted a job,” he told Rest of World, requesting a pseudonym because he feared reprisal for breaking a nondisclosure agreement with his employer.
But the stopgap job has now become his career — one he never wanted, and which he is unable to exit despite attempts.
“Everyone who works in this field is there because they have no choice. It’s something you end up in, and then you are just stuck,” said Asif, who moved to Malaysia in April 2023 to work at Accenture, TikTok’s content moderation contractor in South Asia. “No one wants to be a content moderator forever.”
Over a dozen Pakistani professionals who worked in content moderation jobs as a temporary resort due to a lack of employment options told Rest of World they were stuck in a career that was unfulfilling — one that felt like working at a “sweatshop,” because their experience was not transferable. They have degrees in project management, environmental science, engineering, and business administration, and believe that working as content moderators has stunted their careers.
In 2021, TikTok had around 480 content moderators in Pakistan, up from 116 earlier, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — all while the company was tripling its investment in moderation in the country. The same year, TikTok said it removed over 9 million posts generated by Pakistani users; the number climbed to over 14 million in 2023.
Content moderation is stigmatized as “low-status, low-skill” within the tech industry, according to Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in content moderation of social media. “It’s a paradoxical situation,” she told Rest of World, referring to how moderation requires workers to be highly attentive and quick at making judgments, but “all of the other kinds of skills and facilities you have are sort of left on the cutting-room floor.”
“They are working for the platforms of big tech companies, but there is no career pathway for them to move into positions inside those companies.”
Hassan, who spoke under a pseudonym as he feared professional repercussions, has worked as a TikTok moderator for Accenture since October 2022. He told Rest of World he applied for the role because he thought it was a tech job. After three years as a content moderator across various platforms, Hassan said he has realized that he cannot pivot to a data analytics role.
Sana Ahmad, a researcher at the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg who is writing a book on content moderation in India, told Rest of World she hasn’t encountered content moderators moving towards managerial positions within tech companies at all. “There’s not really any upward mobility happening as such,” she said.
“They are working for the platforms of big tech companies, but there is no career pathway for them to move into positions inside those big tech companies,” Julia Kloiber, co-founder and managing director of the tech nonprofit Superrr Lab, told Rest of World. The only possible career track for content moderators is to move up in the outsourcing company into oversight or management positions, she said.
Islamabad-based Akhtar Ali worked as a content moderator for Snack Video, a Tencent-backed short-video app, from March 2021 to May 2023. He told Rest of World he has been trying to switch careers, with no success. “I’ve been sending my CV to tons of places, both within Pakistan and abroad, but I’m not hearing back because my only experience has been in content moderation,” said Ali, who has a master’s degree in mass communication. “The most you can get promoted to, in the field of content moderation, is team leader, and then you plateau out.”
“This is backbreaking work. I get tired and don’t have the capacity to look at a screen when I get home.”
Moderators told Rest of World there is also a lack of government policies to protect them.
A content moderator at Accenture, who has an MBA in marketing, took on the role as a temporary gig in February 2020. Four years later, he continues to moderate up to 1,200 videos per day. “It gives me headaches and I can’t look at screens when I come home,” he said, requesting anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to the media.
Labor rights in content moderation are barely addressed in Pakistan, digital rights researcher Shmyla Khan told Rest of World. Though successive Pakistani governments — including the current caretaker setup — have spoken extensively about the country’s “IT exports” and “digital economy,” Khan said it is surprising that the labor behind these conversations and press releases is hardly spoken about. “Various governments at various points have tried to harness [the digital economy] — that it brings in foreign exchange, that people can earn in dollars if they’re working for foreign companies, or send in remittances. And that’s also why lots of people gravitated towards these roles,” she said. “But who protects them?”
Work-related fatigue has made it more difficult for content moderators to pull themselves out of the field, multiple moderators said. Some are trying to upskill themselves, taking data analytics and marketing courses on platforms like Coursera. “But it’s difficult,” a content moderator, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and an MBA in human resources, told Rest of World. He requested anonymity as he is not allowed to publicly comment on Bigo Live, where he has worked since 2019. “This is backbreaking work. I get tired and don’t have the capacity to look at a screen when I get home in the evening,” he said.
“Even when [workers] are not on the clock, they’re sort of immersed in that world. And in a way, it’s quite suffocating,” Roberts said. “I’ve talked to many people who talked about emerging from that work, and not really knowing how to engage with the rest of the world anymore.”