It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the Internet employs a vast army of content-scrubbers determining what stays posted and what gets deleted, foot soldiers in a censorship business based on rules of appropriateness written in Silicon Valley. But who are these content moderators? What’s staying up and what’s taken down? And what’s the lasting effect of these sometimes personal, usually corporate biases when the online world, after 15 years of social media dominance, seems to exacerbate divides faster than it can manifest Mark Zuckerberg’s shilled notion of a “global community”?
The chilling, morally hyper-conscious film “The Cleaners” — an issue documentary with ’70s paranoid-thriller DNA from German filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck — introduces us to a handful of these hidden, meagerly paid office workers, cogs in a shadow business headquartered mainly in Manila in unassuming buildings.
They’re told not to overthink their decisions, to rapidly choose “ignore” or “delete” to meet quotas, while only a small percentage of their work is evaluated. One senses quickly that this job is the furthest thing from how we might imagine (wish?) Facebook or YouTube polices content, with the sober thoughtfulness of a legally trained judge overseeing an obscenity trial and measuring the public good. Rather, this looks like contracted, Kafkaesque immersion in the world’s travesties with little thought into what the consequences of this scavenging means.
We don’t get names, but we get glimpses of the toll their job takes. One worker was raised deeply religious but finds herself increasingly drawn to the sexual explicitness in what she’s scanning. A young woman from a poor village near a landfill — shots of people sifting through garbage being almost too perfect a visual metaphor — always envisioned a better life for herself than doing dirty third-world work for a foreign company. Another moderator, meanwhile, supports the Philippines’ strongman president Rodrigo Duterte’s social cleansing policies, and likens his own quick-draw cubicle moralizing to being a “sniper” for good versus evil. (The eerie vigilantism of “Taxi Driver” transposed to the digital realm springs to mind.)
Juxtaposed with the snapshots of these all-too-human online sentries are the gray areas getting skimmed over, the voices being squelched, the context that’s lost, and the free-speech corners companies like Facebook are cutting to stay in business in authoritarian countries like Turkey. We meet a politically minded American artist whose nude rendering of Trump is blocked, her Facebook page closed as a result. A far-right-wing, racist firebrand, meanwhile, figures out how to get around social media guidelines that frequently shut down his site.
On a larger scale, the perils are scarier. A London nonprofit’s attempt to create an online archive of the war in Syria is targeted because the culled videos — including evidence of war crimes — are tagged as terrorist propaganda. And in Myanmar, Rohingyan activist Nay San Lwin, meanwhile, calls out Facebook for inflaming the hate that fuels the genocide of his people. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, one of a handful of thoughtful experts interviewed, technology isn’t unbiased, because if a billion people want outrage, social media platforms will mine that for money over and over again.
It leaves tech leaders like Nicole Wong, whose policy work at Google and Twitter helped build the Internet’s rules and regulations, but who now grasps what it’s wrought, looking in her interview like a chastened apologist for the ideal of free speech online. She clearly never imagined she’d be explaining on camera the reasoning behind why she would allow a photograph of Saddam Hussein hanging, but not footage of his body’s desecration afterward.
If you had eight seconds, could you determine whether a gruesome photograph was gratuitous, or told a necessary story? Thousands of times a day? In exposing this unseen wing of a broken system, “The Cleaners” makes clear how when it comes to the Internet, the more private corporations decide what we all get to “like,” the worse off we’re all going to be.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills