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The Cleaners documentary crawls into the scary side of Facebook

This hard-hitting documentary tackles fake news, censorship and the outsourcing of democracy. It's bleak but essential viewing.

Sundance

If you're reading this, you're on the internet. And if you're on the internet, you need to see The Cleaners.

Directed by Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, this incisive documentary shines a light on the most uncomfortable questions about social media and the online age. You might want to look away, but as the film shows, that's a big part of the problem.

Having premiered to positive reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film airs tonight, Monday November 12, as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. It will also stream for free on PBS.org for two weeks. 

You can also catch it on the big screen at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles on November 23. There's no word on wider distribution by movie theaters or streaming services, but someone needs to open their wallet -- this unflinching film has only become more relevant over the past year.

The "cleaners" of the title are the internet's content moderators: the men and women who examine your videos, photos and social media posts to decide if they're offensive or A-OK. In the past few years, the rise of fake news, social media bubbles, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and increasingly polarized discourse around the world have led to hard questions for Facebook, Twitter and Google. So you might assume these internet giants employ armies of highly trained experts to act as guardians of our delicate sensibilities.

Not exactly.

Now playing: Watch this: 'The Cleaners' documentary shows who's really in control...
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The film introduces us to a handful of content moderators living in the Philippines, where Facebook, et al. outsource the job of policing extreme content. Armed only with the option to "delete" or "ignore" each post, these digital detoxifiers wade through an endless stream of photos and videos -- 25,000 a day, in fact. They have to figure out the complexities of, for example, pornography as opposed to a nude painting of Donald Trump, or make a judgment about free speech versus hate speech. And they have to make these nuanced and highly contextual editorial decisions in about eight seconds.

Delete or ignore?

If they make mistakes, they're in trouble. But if they don't view enough of these extreme images during their shift, they're in trouble. And over time, the roaring tidal wave of horrifying imagery leads to trouble of a different kind. 

The Cleaners follows the content moderators home, showing the families who rely on them to stick with the job, no matter how awful it gets. It's a well-paying job in Manila, but it's still basically a digital sweatshop.

"I've seen hundreds of beheadings," intones one anonymous cleaner in a flat voice. They watch suicides happening live, sickening videos showing children being sexually abused and appalling footage of carnage from war zones. Some would rather sift through garbage of a more physical kind -- scavenging the local dump -- rather than look at one more awful video. Others, the film tells us, end their own lives.

Delete or ignore?

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The psychological effect on social media moderators is huge.

Sundance

But the psychological impact on the watchers of this stream of horror is just the start. 

The Cleaners expands to look at the effects of social media on the world, asking tough question after tough question. We see CEO Mark Zuckerberg speechifying about connecting the world. The filmmakers then take us to Turkey, Myanmar and the Philippines, where authoritarian governments crack down on political opposition, and social media giants help them delete dissenting voices.

It seems reasonable, for example, that YouTube might ban videos showing gory real-life violence. But what about when that video shows the moment an illegal airstrike flattens a hospital? When citizens of war-torn countries can't show the world the atrocities going on in their country and those who drop bombs on schools get away with it. When reports from the front lines are deleted, the world can ignore the conflict.

At the same time as potentially silencing the marginalized, the algorithms of social media increasingly reward newsfeed screeds and self-reinforcing extreme opinions that garner more likes and shares. That includes Myanmar's wave of popular racism aimed at the Rohingya people, who face genocide. Closer to home, we see the screaming match that passes for political discourse in an increasingly divided US. Ambitious and thorough, The Cleaners scrupulously goes around the world talking to journalists, artists and activists from across the political spectrum to highlight these issues.

Turning the spotlight on the internet giants themselves, The Cleaners also shows excerpts of government hearings from the past 10 years in which Facebook, Google and Twitter representatives duck the hard questions. Former Silicon Valley heavyweights also weigh in, including one of the lawyers who testified to the US Senate. She still talks about the "privilege" of working for Google, but there are cracks in the facade. Asked about Facebook's role in government censorship in Turkey, she replies, "I ... did not love that solution."

Compared with the circumspect obfuscation emanating from social networks throughout the film, that feels like a devastating admission. 

How much longer can Facebook, Google and the rest claim to have no control or responsibility over the content they beam into our lives? The Cleaners does an exceptional job of summing up the issues surrounding social media. We don't yet know how we're going to clean up this mess, but the film is packed with pressing questions faced by internet giants, governments, you and me. When democracy, transparency and debate are deleted, we can't ignore it.

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