The Cleaners is a provocative documentary that will be screening at the 29th Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. While this film is not part of the opening night events, I was given the opportunity to view it in advance. Directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, The Cleaners explores social media moderating, with a focus on Google and Facebook. This film explores just who is placed in charge of moderating worldwide content and how deleting or ignoring certain content can alter the national dialogue and events throughout the world.
I went into The Cleaners with a very limited knowledge of social media moderating. I predominantly use Twitter and YouTube and through these sites I have of course come across some elements of moderating or attempts at moderating. Though as of yet none of my content has been removed I have known people who have found a tweet deleted or a video blocked. Watching The Cleaners opened my eyes to just how the system of moderating works and how woefully ignorant I was of the policing of social media. Block and Riesewieck interviewed and followed a number of moderators living in the Philippines, specifically in Manila. They supplemented the information shared by these moderators with people who have been impacted by social media moderating. They also included C-Span footage that was connected to social media, specifically hearings at which Google and Facebook representatives had to speak on their institutions policies and practices.
What I found the most shocking was that much of the moderating for Facebook and Google is outsourced. The moderators could not specifically say who they were working for, but experts spoke to this outsourcing to provide a picture for the viewer. While these moderators are trained they often do not have the context for what it is they are viewing, which in some situations can cause tremendous issues. For example an artist had all of their sites shut down based on a politically inspired image that was viewed as unacceptable by a moderator, who argued that it showed a specific political figure in a poor light. Another example was tied to attempts in Syria to provide citizens with a larger picture of the attacks occurring within the country. While the organization Airwars does their best to pinpoint where attacks have happened using YouTube, which is the most up to the minute location to find this information, they have to work quickly before the videos are pulled. The issue for them is that these videos, though violent, are the only true way they can provide information to people in the areas affected.
The Cleaners is an eye opening documentary that should frighten you. I came away from watching it feeling better informed, but also shocked by just how biased social media can become through just the decisions of a few people. I was also saddened by just how difficult the work of moderating is. Each person has to daily go through at least 25,000 images and based on the selected content that was shown this work has to be psychologically brutal for them.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is presenting 15 films over the course of seven days, June 14th to the 21st, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe film Center and at the IFC Center. Each film is followed by a discussion session that viewers can participate in. You can find the full schedule on their site, which includes show times for The Cleaners.
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