“I’ve been a content moderator for six years now. I’ve seen a lot of videos and pictures.”
Co-directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, 'The Cleaners' is a documentary about the people working in Southeast Asia for social networks (such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter), reviewing thousands of videos, photos and social media posts uploaded online every day in order to keep the platforms clean from inappropriate content and criminal postings. These people work unseen by the public, but their role is vital. “Algorithms can’t do what we do,” one of the interviewees remarks. Their job is seemingly simple – “Delete” or “Ignore” - but the responsibility of this simple action is colossal.
According to Block and Riesewieck's research, tens of thousands of young people are doing this work. ‘The Cleaners’ claims that the main hub of this industry is in Manila, where Filipinos both have the language skills required to make judgments about what they read and are cheap to employ: as these workers sift through the trash of the web, many around them live by picking through literal garbage dumps in search of things to sell.
They take their work seriously, even when it seeps into their personalities or fills their dreams with kinky sex. We meet a devout Catholic who sees her job as a battle against sin, going to sleep “dreaming of penises” after a day of deleting nudity and porn. “I thought it was a type of plug you use in the sink, so that water doesn’t flow out," she says when recounting how she first learned what a “butt plug” was.
Cinematographers Axel Schneppat and Max Preiss follow the moderators from their cubicles in high-rise office towers through the city at night to their humble dwellings. Voiceovers explain some of the more horrific material as the camera lingers on faces and eyes staring blankly at computer screens. The narrative is segmented by confidential emails from anonymous employees to the filmmakers. At times, ‘The Cleaners’ feels more like a grim, neon-lit, science-fiction noir than a documentary.
The material is tough to absorb. We hear (not see) one content moderator describe seeing child pornography for the first time. The drowned bodies of Libyan refugee children are held on-screen and pondered while the moderator explains how the news media would censor these graphic images. We watch over the shoulder of another moderator as he evaluates a severed head sitting on a body, the result of a terrorist execution – as he informs us, he’s seen “hundreds of beheadings” in his career and clinically points out tell-tale signs that it was carried out using a small knife.
According to the outsourcing contract, not only are the content moderators prohibited from disclosing the relevant social media platform for which they are working, but also the actual deleted content itself. The images are obviously psychologically distressing, and at the same time this requirement of confidentiality bars them from seeking any assistance. We hear of one moderator, whose specialty was evaluating self-harm videos, who eventually killed himself and whose suicide was hushed up by his employer. How does a human process 25,000 images per day? Countless sadistic photos. Thousands of depraved videos. People subjected to heinous crimes.
At times, ‘The Cleaners’ feels more like a grim, neon-lit, science-fiction noir than a documentary.
Also of interest is that, while the moderators believe the job is noble, over 90% of the Philippines is Christian (words like "sin" start popping up in their discussion of a workday). We have to start questioning whose values they represent as they look at provocative images that other audiences might think deserve to be seen. Content is often deemed inappropriate if it does not suit the governments or leaders (like ruthless Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte) of individual countries or if, for instance, it tells about the reality of wartime conflicts in an alarming manner. At which point does the effort to prevent the spread of evil become dangerous censorship?
‘The Cleaners’ hammers home the fact that even if the companies support sanitising posts using humans and not algorithms, each choice comes down to a single person making a judgement call, often enough 10,000 kilometres away from where the original item was posted. Their two-second decision to ignore or delete creates ripples across the web, affecting lives everywhere.
Citing scenarios around the world, the film highlights the consequences of censorship. Artist Illma Gore’s Facebook page is seized after she posts an unflattering nude painting of Donald Trump. Activists in Turkey lose the use of social media tools to organise when the government blocks access based on IP addresses. In California, a liberal political artist and a right-wing propagandist upload files that get removed. Meanwhile, in London, a human rights activist hastily downloads Syrian citizen journalists’ videos of air strikes before that living history is deleted. And in Bangladesh, a blogger explains how Facebook has fuelled the Rohingya genocide.
Posing some essential questions and giving viewers a lot to mentally unpack, ‘The Cleaners’ is a short but gruelling documentary, a nuanced film and a relentless story.