The Cleaners: protection or censorship?

By Caitlin Cassidy
Sundance Institute

“Delete. Delete. Ignore. Ignore.” So goes the lives of the ‘cleaners,’ a vast group of workers predominantly outsourced in Manila, who trawl through thousands of graphic images and videos every day to moderate for safe content online.

In a thought-provoking directorial debut that cuts to the heart of contemporary political debates, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewick delve into the shady underbelly of the cyber world in The Cleaners, exploring the ethical dilemmas that stem from censorship in a world increasingly reliant on social media.

The cleaners, whose stories are interwoven throughout the documentary, are regularly exposed to images of extreme violence. They rapidly flick from pictures and footage of torture, assault, self-harm and terrorist attacks, to a naked, de-masculine cartoon of Donald Trump. It is up to them to decide what images are safe content for users, and what images must be taken down.

And the justification of their traumatic line of work? To protect internet users from witnessing the horrors themselves. More often than not, however, the decisions they make are not so black and white.

In 2003, writer and activist Susan Sontag wrote the profoundly influential essay Regarding the Pain of Others. In it, she explored the effects and the possible uses that repeated exposure to horrific images has on the public, eventually, she concluded:
“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”

In Berlin, Block follows the Syrian artist Khaled Barekeh, who whites out the bodies of murdered Syrian children to prevent the censoring that has repeatedly removed the photographs he had published on his Facebook wall. His attempts to show the images in this way are both a plea – that this is what the international community condones ­– and a fight to disturb, to unsettle, so that the children may not be forgotten.

What is journalism, and what is brutality for the sake of it? How can these lines be demarcated in a matter of seconds, void of their respective contexts?

Tech companies, Facebook in particular, currently hold enormous power to decide what users can and cannot see. They have the capacity to limit our freedom of expression, yet their power expands beyond decision-making on censorship claims. It extends to the way social media companies affect our own capacities for questioning, for reflection and for being challenged by our peers.

Facebook does not act as a neutral tool but instead amplifies the facets of our nature that draw our attention to engage with it; what successfully provokes our interest, and encourages platform engagement, is outrage.

Stretching across geographical lines from violent alt-right protests in America to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, The Cleaners examines how the profound technological innovations and decisions made in Silicon Valley have impacted not only what we think, but the way we think through repeated, but limited exposure to certain viewpoints on social media platforms.

In Los Angeles, an alt-right wing activist justifies the hate speech he posts on Facebook and YouTube as integral to the freedom of speech assurances laid out in the first amendment. “I’ve been the shit kicker for a long time,” he announces to the camera, “and I’m going to be the shit kicker until I die”. He praises social media sites for allowing him to get his anti-immigration messages to the public with efficiency, accessibility and speed.

In an era of fake news and increasing political divide, escalating with the 2016 allegations of Russian interference in the US election, Facebook can no longer justify itself as a tech company with no accountability regarding the content that is produced on its interface.

Facebook does not act as a neutral tool but instead amplifies the facets of our nature that draw our attention to engage with it; what successfully provokes our interest, and encourages platform engagement, is outrage. This, coupled with the algorithm’s dissuasion from exposing us to contrasting views, creates a hotbed of fear, violence and division.

Enter Trump. Enter Brexit. Enter the increasing right-left divide.

Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, says it most simply in The Cleaners: “The whole enrolment (is) tuned to offer us the worst of ourselves.”

With powerful insight from high-up Silicon Valley workers, despairing journalists and content creators, attacked minorities and deeply troubled Filipino workers, The Cleaners is a must-see documentary in a time that’s seeing great innovation, as well as great instability, division and change.