‘I Can Hear the Suffering’: Rev Exposes Freelance Transcribers to Violent, Disturbing Content

Transcribers say they’ve come across descriptions of child sex trafficking and domestic abuse — all without warning

Rev is an on-demand transcription service that relies on tens of thousands of gig workers to transcribe its customers’ audio files and write captions for their videos. But these freelancers, who have blown the whistle on payment and security flaws in recent weeks, say their work exposes them to unfiltered graphic content — audio accounts of child sexual abuse and video footage containing medical gore, for example.

One such recording described to OneZero by a freelancer, or “Revver,” as the company calls its workers, seemed innocuous at first. The file contained audio submitted in a court case, but then, without warning, one of its subjects began “talking seriously” about killing their kids, the Revver said.

OneZero independently confirmed that content involving violence currently exists on Rev. Because transcribers are not supposed to keep customer files, OneZero did not review the specific recordings described by Revvers, who requested anonymity for fear of violating Rev’s non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements.

That such material might surface on Rev’s platform is not unexpected. The Rev blog suggests that law enforcement, doctors, and lawyers use Rev for dictations or interviews, and its name has appeared in citations within police documents, court records, and patient studies.

But the disturbing content sometimes uploaded by these clients is at odds with Rev’s own terms of service, which discourage customers from submitting material that is “unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortious, excessively violent, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.”

“I’ve come across files that I thought were typical enough, and 20 minutes into the hour, it gets into the details of somebody’s sexual assault.”

Freelancers say that because criminal investigators and legal professionals use Rev, it’s not unusual for transcribers to hear brutal, unedited testimonies. Because medical professionals are also Rev clients, they say things like bloody surgical procedures have made it onto the platform. None of the files are uploaded with warning labels, meaning Revvers who do not wish to hear or see this material cannot easily vet jobs before opening the files.

“I’ve come across files that I thought were typical enough, and 20 minutes into the hour, it gets into the details of somebody’s sexual assault,” another Revver said. “One where somebody recorded an argument they were having with someone as it escalated. A labor dispute where it seemed like the audio was secretly recorded by the client and then uploaded by lawyers.”

Revvers described other unnerving recordings: Title IX investigations, anti-LGBTQ and racist statements, and a therapy session that explored someone’s molestation. One freelancer said they encountered “many files” wherein researchers promised to anonymize their interviews with study participants, but failed to do so before uploading them to Rev. Another said they transcribed police interrogations of a suspected child murderer, an accomplice to a fatal stabbing, and a conversation about trafficking children into sexual slavery.

“I would liken it to horror stories where someone finds themselves receiving a transmission from somewhere else in time and space,” one Rev freelancer described in an email. “I can hear the suffering and, having experienced this type of manipulation and abuse myself, I know how it feels to be on that end.”

Rev did not comment on the authenticity of these claims when asked about them by OneZero. A spokesperson said that Revvers are free to choose which files they work on.

According to screenshots of Rev’s internal platform shared with OneZero, it’s often impossible to ascertain a file’s subject matter without first opening it. Some are tagged with generic topic icons like an ambulance or briefcase that freelancers can apply to help other workers sort jobs, but this is optional. Occasionally, a video’s thumbnail will hint at its contents. Rev confirmed that it does not screen files, but enables Revvers to preview them for an hour — a system that makes transcribers de facto moderators.

Freelancers say the onus is on them to vet recordings, but Rev’s job queue encourages them to quickly claim new projects. Since they get paid only for what they transcribe, not for browsing files, one freelancer says, “Why would I spend more than the bare minimum in finding something?” Those who take longer than the allotted hour to preview files can be penalized with lowered commitment ratios.

“There is some nightmare level stuff in there,” a freelancer said. “When it’s past that initial hour where I can unclaim a file without punishment, then it feels awful.”

Rev’s working conditions are not uncommon for the gig economy, where freelancers are promised flexibility and autonomy but are not covered by minimum wage and overtime protections. Facebook uses subcontractors to hire thousands of content moderators who police footage of drone shootings, suicide posts, and other traumatizing footage. Amazon Mechanical Turk provides a marketplace of “crowdworkers” who perform small tasks like image labeling and answering surveys that are sometimes tagged by their posters as containing “adult content.” Even among the transcription field, Rev isn’t unique in offering work that can involve viewing sensitive material. A seasoned transcriber may expect to routinely hear a 911 call or worse.

But transcription services like Rev are mostly absent from conversations about the distributed workforce that screens, labels, classifies, and otherwise handles the content of others, and the personal toll of consuming this material. A 2015 study by U.K. psychologists concluded that the “invisibility and marginalization of transcriptionists increases the potential for emotional harm and possibly vicarious traumatization.”

Meanwhile, even large companies are not required by law to provide health insurance to freelancers. When OneZero asked Rev about mental health support, a spokesperson said, “Revvers are encouraged to take care of their physical and mental health and as freelance employees, they have the freedom to take as much personal, sick and family time as needed.”

Transcribers say they vent on Rev’s forum — “to discuss why humanity goes to deep, dark places,” according to one freelancer — but are limited in what they can say about their experiences because they have signed confidentiality agreements. Revvers use the same forum to warn each other about problematic customers; some “who upload content with heavy amounts of sex, as well as intrigue that could lead to scandals if leaked,” one person noted.

Revvers say the company’s content problems are compounded with other issues, such as low pay and poor communication from leadership. Following a OneZero report on security vulnerabilities with the platform, two Revvers told the New York Times that someone possessing a Russian email address hacked their accounts this summer. Rev CEO Jason Chicola told the Times that customer data was never accessed, but the hack demonstrates the reality of privacy risks on Rev. In a publicly streamed Q&A last week, Chicola, speaking to a YouTube audience of more than 500 people, said the platform was a “disaster” and vowed to set things right. In a blog post titled “The Full Story,” published on Monday, he contested reports that Revvers are displeased by recent changes.

Li Zilles, the freelancer who first spoke out on Twitter about Rev’s actions, has since created an alternative website for ethically sourced transcriptions. Zilles described it to OneZero as “a cooperative platform that would be empowering instead of exploitative.”

“People have reported getting more injuries and burnout while trying to churn out this work,” one Revver said. “Rev will not be there for anyone who has a breakdown.”

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE