Former YouTube Content Moderator Sues Over “Significant Psychological Trauma”

On Monday in San Mateo County, Calif. Superior Court, an anonymous former content moderator for YouTube filed a class-action complaint against YouTube alleging that the job led her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and depression after watching beheadings, shootings, murders, child abuse, and other unsettling and disturbing content.  

The plaintiff, a contractor employed by Collabera, claimed that YouTube relies on content moderators to “sanitize” the platform by viewing flagged content and removing any videos that violate its terms of use. As a result, content moderators are exposed to disturbing content, “conspiracy theories,” and “fringe beliefs.” The plaintiff alleged that after consistent exposure to these disturbing images, she developed “significant psychological trauma including anxiety, depression and symptoms associated with PTSD.” According to the complaint, studies have shown that repeated exposure to graphic and disturbing images can cause psychological trauma. Furthermore, the plaintiff averred that “YouTube acknowledged that viewing graphic content could lead to psychological trauma,” but “YouTube engaged in an aggressive campaign to hide evidence and silence whistle blowers.” For example, “(i)n 2017, Content Moderators were told to stop talking or posting about the negative effects of reviewing graphic content.” Thus, YouTube allegedly did nothing to help content moderators.  

According to the complaint, the plaintiff “has trouble sleeping and when she does sleep, she has horrific nightmares. She often lays awake at night trying to go to sleep, replaying videos that she has seen in her mind. She cannot be in crowded places, including concerts and events, because she fears mass shootings. She has severe and debilitating panic attacks. She has lost many friends because of her anxiety around people. She has trouble interacting and being around kids and is now scared to have children.”

The plaintiff claimed that YouTube established workplace standards “to attempt to mitigate the negative psychological effects that viewing graphic and objectionable content has on Content Moderators,” including obtaining informed consent, providing content moderators “with robust and mandatory counseling and mental health support; altering the resolution, audio, size, and color of trauma-inducing images and videos; and training Content Moderators to recognize the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD.” The plaintiff noted that while this would not have removed the risk, it would have reduced the risk and minimized the harm. However, these safety standards were purportedly not implemented, causing content moderators to work in unsafe conditions that could “cause and exacerbate psychological trauma.”

The putative class includes all persons who performed content moderation work for YouTube up until the present. The proposed class action seeks to protect the plaintiff and other content moderators “from the dangers of psychological trauma resulting from exposure to graphic and objectionable content on YouTube” and its “failure to provide a safe workplace for the thousands of contractors that scrub YouTube’s platform of disturbing content.” The causes of action against YouTube include negligence for abnormally dangerous activity, negligent exercise of retained control, negligent provision of unsafe equipment, and violation of the California Unfair Competition Law.

The plaintiff has sought certification as a class action and for the plaintiff and her counsel to represent the class, an order to notify class members about the suit, and order to create a medical monitoring fund, an award for damages, medical treatment, and injunctive relief.

The plaintiff is represented by Joseph Saveri Law Firm, Inc.

This putative class action is similar to a class-action against Facebook, where content moderators claimed that the content that they are required to view and a lack of available resources caused trauma to them. Facebook also previously proposed a $52 million settlement with content moderators to compensate them for alleged development of PTSD and other related mental health conditions.