I knew The Cleaners was a movie about the people who ensure that harmful content is moderated across social media platforms. I didn’t think there would be much to this.
Of course, there are people out there who moderate content. What I didn’t know, however, was the way that this was done and all of the possible harm that is created by this process.
The Cleaners begins in the Philippines by interviewing employees of a company that is contracted to moderate all of the content that is flagged across platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. We are shown that workers have to go through thousands of flagged images and videos a day, which can include videos of beheading, child pornography and dead children. It quickly becomes clear that while these employees feel that they are helping the world, their mental state from viewing all of this content is suffering.
While it would seem that the film is telling us that moderation is necessary at first, we are then shown an artist who paints nude pictures of Donald Trump. Political art is nothing new, though as the paintings feature genitalia, the images are then flagged and removed. We then chat with a man who is doing everything he can to save images of what is happening in Syria before they are taken down. He believes that if we do not know what is going on, then we are only able to rely on what the army is telling us, which is usually an inaccurate depiction. Maybe content moderation isn’t so healthy after all?
There are some strong messages that are portrayed in this film, and it certainly poses a great many questions. For instance, shouldn’t companies such as Google be ensuring that the mental health of their content moderators is taken care of? Even if they are outsourced through another company. Is art different to pornography, and if it is, then why are certain art images taken down?
Should the public be able to see what is going on in places such as Syria even if the images and videos are disturbing? Should hate speech be classified as a freedom of speech or should it be classed as a form of bullying? And finally, should these large companies simply pull their platforms from countries where they are being used to spread hate and racism.
Overall, these are important questions that we should all be asking ourselves, especially as most of us (if not all of us) use social media in one way or another. And while this documentary was beautifully filmed and does a great job of raising these questions, it does waffle on a little bit. The runtime of 1hr and 28 minutes felt like a lifetime and I believe this film could have been much more poignant if they had simply trimmed some of the unnecessary scenes. Despite that, I am excited to see what the directors will do in the future and I believe this film is still an important watch.
The Cleaners is the first film from directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck.