Former TikTok Moderators Sue Over Work-Related Trauma

The pair alleges TikTok didn't do enough to protect them from post-traumatic stress brought on by viewing disturbing videos.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, wannabe runner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
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Bree Fowler
2 min read
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Two former TikTok moderators are suing the social video app and its parent company, alleging that not enough was done to protect them from suffering emotional trauma as a result of viewing the graphic content they were hired to police.

In the federal lawsuit, filed Thursday and reported earlier by NPR, Ashley Velez and Reece Young, who both did moderation work for TikTok through third-party companies, say they spent 12-hour workdays reviewing "disgusting and offensive content" that left them emotionally scarred.

Some of the worst videos showed animal cruelty, child abuse, disturbing pornography and even killings, the lawsuit says.

Millions of videos are uploaded daily to the Chinese-owned app, which has more than 1 billion monthly active users. About 10,000 moderators like Velez and Young police its content to keep it free of the kind of imagery the lawsuit describes.

The suit alleges that TikTok and its owner, ByteDance, violated California labor law because they didn't provide adequate mental health treatment to help moderators deal with the anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress that can be caused by such imagery. 

Both plaintiffs were contractors who worked for separate firms, but they allege in the suit that TikTok and ByteDance controlled their day-to-day work by directly tying their pay to how well they moderated content and by pushing them to hit tough quotas. The suit says they also had to sign nondisclosure agreements, preventing them from discussing what they saw with anyone.

Officials for TikTok didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for comment. They told NPR that the company "strives to promote a caring working environment for our employees and contractors."

In 2020, Facebook reached a $52 million settlement with a group of its moderators. That group filed a suit in 2018 that said the moderators had suffered similar post-traumatic stress as a result of the content they had to view.

The lawsuit against TikTok seeks damages and legal fees, as well as the establishment of a fund to pay for a medical monitoring program to manage ongoing screening, diagnosis and treatment of the two plaintiffs, as well as others who may join the lawsuit later.