As Mark Zuckerberg has stated time and time again, the goal of Facebook has always been to create a more open and connected world. Of course, the ability to share anything with anyone in any place is a double-edged sword, inviting the spread of hate, prejudice and “fake news” as much as anything else. So should certain things be censored on social media? And who has the right to do that on platforms that steadfastly preserve the idea of free speech? These are the questions that directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck tackle in their debut documentary, The Cleaners, and in a year where Zuckerberg himself was called to testify in front of congress about massive data breaches facilitated by his company (providing some highly-shareable memes in the process), the hot-button relevance couldn’t be greater.
The idea that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like can be censored shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – we all know someone whose account has been temporarily shut down for “violating terms of conduct”. But while it may seem like this is done by a group of shadowy people at a secret office in Silicon Valley, the reality is much more banal. As The Cleaners exposes, these platforms farm the job out to shady companies in the Philippines, leaving this important decision making process in the hands of underpaid office employees that are often extremely underprepared for the task at hand.
Block and Riesewick conduct interviews and show snippets of e-mails from these moderators, many of who speak on condition of anonymity, walking us through what the job is actually like. The camera coolly glides through the dark offices where the participants sit illuminated by their computer screens, robotically intoning either “delete” or “ignore” as they neutrally scroll through thousands of questionable images. Some take a special pride in it, like the religiously motivated lady who believes it’s her duty to erase sin from the Internet. More heartbreaking are the accounts of workers under locked contracts who can’t handle the constant stream of graphic imagery and want to quit, some being pushed into depression and driven to suicide as a result. It’s a job that essentially confronts the sickest and most vile aspects of the human race.
Of course, the regulations of what gets deleted and what gets to stay online are deeply flawed and hypocritical, which quickly becomes the larger issue here. Videos of underreported conflicts and mass genocides around the world are deleted for being too graphic even though the resulting lack of awareness of these events around the world leads to this violence continuing on unchallenged. The infamous nude portrait of Donald Trump was hastily deleted because it “degrades the image of the president”, but various bigoted and hateful posts are allowed to stay because they’re just viewed as personal opinions.
The directors make several diversions to try and illuminate how this decision-making process has global consequences, culminating in the reality that fake news and greater polarization led to the most disastrous American presidential election of all time. The film does falter a little bit here as not all of the asides fit in tonally, like an extended bit that gives the spotlight to a right-wing nationalist whose racist views go pretty much unchallenged online. At the end of the day, it’s all just too big a subject to try and adequately flesh out in one 90-minute documentary and The Cleaners loses a bit of focus when it tries to do so.
Instead, the film is at it’s most powerful when it remains in those Manila office buildings with the cleaners themselves, since by the end of it all, most of these clandestine moderators voice the same general sentiment: What is it all for?