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Friday 8 June 2018

The Cleaners, Documentary Film 2017, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, 8.5* out of 10

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the social media. By focusing on the individuals in the frontline of examining extreme content they show the human drama and thereby raise the systemic issues in an accessible and impressive way. 

The Cleaners in the title of this documentary are the people on the frontline of social media who view posts, photos and videos and decide whether they need to remove them. To make this decision they view content which has been identified by some Artificial Intelligence software as potentially problematic and refer to policies they have received from the clients of their employer, among them Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google-Alphabet). These global market-leaders of social networking have outsourced these task, but by ordering it to be done, they have explicitly assumed a certain editorial responsibility for. Their software, policy manual, and the outsourcer they have chosen are there to ensure that certain types of content posted by anyone of their billions of users will be removed if it is “unacceptable”. Examples of the unacceptable are child pornography, terror propaganda, lots of types of lewd nakedness and certain forms of lèse majesté, particularly if images or representations of prominent figures involve lewd nakedness or sex.

The job of the cleaners involves being relentlessly assaulted by the most brutal and disgusting pictures and videos. From child rape to ISIS beheadings, a cleaner must view thousands of disgusting pictures every day and decide which of these they need to remove and why. 

The go-to country for finding an outsourcing company to do this job are the Philippines. One can only speculate that it is the combination of low wage cost together with its “Christian values” of this former Spanish and US colony that has something to do with the Filipinos and Filipinas being considered the most suitable work-force for this task. The cleaners who are recruited are mainly smart though, well educated, young people who are in the front-line of the most popular social media being paid USD 1.--  to USD 2.-- per hour.

The film presents five former “cleaners” who, despite the non-disclosure agreement they have signed with their former employers, articulately explain what they did, why they did it, how it made them feel and what impact performing this task had on them in the long run.

The social media giants and the outsourcing companies are secretive about the “cleaning” aspect of their operations; therefore, the pioneering work done by Block, Riesewieck and their team to bring to light how this work is performed in the frontline and by whom, is not only a scoop, but also a valuable contribution to the important debates concerning social media, fake news, freedom of expression and its limits. By focusing on the cleaners and their experiences and giving them ample room to present themselves, warts and all, the filmmakers have made a documentary that feels like a psychological drama. This approach makes their documentary interesting for a very wide audience beyond those who are interested in social media. In fact, it shows how ordinary people with whom we can identify and empathise try to cope under extreme conditions. Some of this makes for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing.

Block and Riesewieck have also found former mid-level managers from the social media giants who speak very eloquently and clearly about real live examples of the challenges they faced and how they tried to cope with what often were unprecedented situations. The testimony of Nicole Wong formerly responsible for policy in this area at Google and Twitter lays out the complex issues she was faced with very well.

Their documentary is least interesting when they show examples of people and cases who generate the posts that the cleaners must deal with, but thankfully this part of the documentary is not overlong. The case for Facebook posts containing hate-speech being mainly responsible for the escalation of the conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Myanmar was not convincingly made,

With The Cleaners, Block and Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the new media. By not adding a commentary voice, they avoid telling the viewer what to think, thereby making the impact of what the protagonists tell us even stronger and more direct. The research behind the documentary cannot have been easy and is clearly of high quality. The Cleaners is a remarkable first effort and one can hope for more great documentaries from these filmmakers. 

With the rapid development and convergence of new technologies (Artificial Intelligence, picture and film editing tools) the task of the human cleaners may soon be replaced by software while the challenge may soon be overtaken by ever greater manipulative technologies used to appeal to people’s emotions.  Nevertheless, The Cleaners is the timely product of the kind of documentary journalism which should be reinforced and multiplied. Organisations to which film-makers can turn for support (financial, technical, commissioning and more) have a crucial role to play here. Independent Public Broadcasters like the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF and the BBC in the UK have played an important role in making this documentary possible. They and the others are to be congratulated and supported for successfully fulfilling they’re role of critically examining important political, social and economic developments in an accessible and suspenseful way.

The Cleaners is a documentary, that holds the viewer’s full attention, informs you, makes you think and will stay with long after the final credits. Highly recommended.

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