The Cleaners

THE CLEANERS,   Germany, 2018. 88 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes). Directed by Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck.

Cleaners? Actually, the technical title for the people studied in this documentary is “Content Moderators”.

The film asks us to consider the Internet and Social Media, specifically Facebook (and other similar, very popular, social media used throughout the world). And the consideration is the posting of what is considered unsuitable material: whether it be Russian propaganda to influence political elections in the United States, racist bigotry anywhere, violent images, sexual images. We hear about them being “taken down”. But who does this taking down?

The film-makers are from Germany but the centre of attention of this film is the Philippines, Manila. As might be expected, there is material from the United States, a number of journalists, Internet technicians, and sequences from Congressional hearings from 2016 with the representatives of Facebook, Google et cetera attempting to answer their interrogators clearly but not always succeeding. With these interviewees, we are somewhat familiar, having heard or read about their opinions on “taking things down”.

However, interest is more than roused many questions are raised by the interviews with the men and women who are employed by the companies in Manila. They refer to themselves as “Content Moderators”. We see them as ordinary citizens, men and women, different ages, at home, sometimes in poor situations, happy to have a job, going off to work where they will sit in front of computer screens for hours, looking at images, thousands a day, and making a judgement when they make their announcement “Delete” or “Ignore”. These are the people who are making the judgements on what can be seen, what should be removed.

It may not be a consideration that has ever come to mind – our simply taking it for granted that people do the removing of the material. But, as we watch these men and women, listening to their being interviewed, all kinds of questions arise. What are their qualifications? What is their actual training? How much are they influenced by personal attitudes, stances, beliefs? And the answer to that question is that they seem to be in influenced considerably. And then the question arises as to who supervises the Content Moderators?

The Philippines is a Catholic country, people devout, devotional, traditional in their attitudes and beliefs – which becomes very evident from the interviews. And, it would seem, that many of the moderators have led fairly sheltered lives, not familiar with some of the gross sexual images that they are confronted by, even having to learn some basics about human sexuality. We see them learning some sexual vocabulary that they find abhorrent. They see a violent war picture – is it proper reporting? Is it ISIS propaganda? And, confronted by an American cartoon – and the example given is that of a satiric painting by a young California artist of President Trump naked – is it obscene, is it pornographic, is it legitimate sender or spoof?

This is not a long film but, as it progresses, shifting to the Congress, back to Manila, back to journalists and experts, back to Manila, computer graphics illustrating information and statistics, back to Manila, the documentary audience have far more questions and puzzles than they might have anticipated.

Yes, there is unsuitable material on social media. Yes, much of it needs to be taken down. Yes, there have to be responsible people from the companies. But, selection of Moderators, training of moderators, assessing their decisions – who is responsible and how do they exercise that responsibility?

The Cleaners might sound an innocuous title – but the issues are far from innocuous.

Madman                        Released October 18th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.