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Vital documentary 'The Cleaners' dishes dirt on social media

The new film from Sundance tackles fake news, censorship and the outsourcing of democracy. It's uncomfortable to watch but essential viewing.

Sundance

If you're reading this, you need to see "The Cleaners". It's an incisive new documentary that 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.

This unflinching documentary, directed by first-timers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month. In a quiet year for movie deals at the festival, "The Cleaners" hasn't yet been picked up for distribution by movie theatres or streaming services. But someone needs to get their chequebook, because this searingly relevant film is essential viewing.

The "cleaners" of the title are the internet's content moderators: the men and women employed to analyse your videos, photos and social media posts and decide if they're offensive or A-OK. In the past few years, the rise of fake news, social media bubbles and increasingly polarised 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.

Yeah, right.

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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' what they see, 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. 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. If they don't view enough extreme images, 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, 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?

The psychological impact on social media moderators is just the start.

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 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, for YouTube to delete videos depicting shocking 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, those who drop bombs on schools get away with it. When reports from the frontline are deleted, the world can ignore the conflict.

At the same time as potentially silencing the marginalised, 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 round the world talking to journalists, artists, activists from across the political spectrum and many more to highlight these different issues.

Turning the spotlight on the internet giants themselves, "The Cleaners" shows excerpts of government hearings from the past 10 years in which Facebook, Google and Twitter representatives duck the hard questions. The filmmakers also manage to get some heavyweight former Silicon Valleyites, 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 to the circumspect obfuscation emanating from social networks throughout the film, that feels like a devastating admission. 

How much longer can Facebook and 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, and you and me. When democracy, transparency and debate are deleted, we can't ignore it.

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