Ex-TikTok moderators sue over 'emotional distress' from disturbing videos

The workers saw murder, bestiality and other distressing images.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Two former TikTok moderators filed a federal lawsuit seeking class-action status today against the platform and parent company Bytedance, reported NPR. The plaintiffs, Ashley Velez and Reece Young, worked for the social video platform last year as contractors. To fulfill their role as moderators, they witnessed “many acts of extreme and graphic violence”, including murder, bestiality, necrophilia and other disturbing images. The lawsuit accuses TikTok of negligence and violating labor laws in California, the state where the platform's US operations is based.

Both plaintiffs said they were tasked with viewing hours of disturbing footage, often working 12-hour days. They both paid for counseling out-of-pocket in order to deal with the psychological toll of the job. The lawsuit accuses TikTok of imposing high “productivity standards” on moderators, which forced them to watch large volumes of disturbing content without a break. Both employees were also forced to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their employment.

"We would see death and graphic, graphic pornography. I would see nude underage children every day," Velez told NPR. "I would see people get shot in the face, and another video of a kid getting beaten made me cry for two hours straight."

Moderators at Facebook and other platforms have spoken out in the past about the severe psychological toll of their jobs. Employees have alleged they're given a short period of time, usually only seconds, to determine whether a video violates the platform’s policies. The job has often been called “the worst job in technology," and workers regularly suffer from depression, PTSD-like symptoms and suicidal ideation. In a 2020 settlement,Facebook paid over $52 million to a group of former moderators who said they developed PTSD from the job.

This is not the first lawsuit of this type for TikTok, which currently has a base of 10,000 content moderators worldwide. Last December another content moderator for TikTok also sued the platform for negligence and violating workplace safety standards. According to NPR, the lawsuit was dropped last month after the plaintiff was fired.