Nothing is forever, not even the internet. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube posts frequently disappear but where do they go and who makes the decision to wipe them from your feed? A new documentary, “The Cleaners” from German filmmakers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, reveals the people who decide if your post is too violent, too pornographic or even too political.
Call them “content moderators” or “digital scavengers” whatever you like, they are the folks who scrub your favourite sites of objectionable material. But what, exactly, qualifies as objectionable? Riesewieck and Block introduce us to a handful of scrubbers, most compellingly, the ones outsourced to the Philippines. We meet anonymous censors—their job contracts don’t allow them to share their names or the company they work for—like a devout Catholic woman who says she is keeping the Internet safe by eliminating “sin” and a man who recalls watching multiple beheadings. All spend their days looking at disturbing images and hitting either “ignore” or “delete” in response. Although nameless we learn of the mental toll of the job. Suicide, nightmares psychological problems are common.
We learn something about how they make the decisions of what we can and cannot see, but with every click of a mouse even more questions arise. Do they have too much power, sitting anonymously behind a computer screen 7000 miles from Silicon Valley? It is an almost unspeakably complex situation. Does deleting terrorist videos silence the terrorists or those who want to use those images to shine a light on atrocities being committed around the world? Who should be allowed to decide what is credible journalism and what is propaganda? Should social media companies co-operate with countries to ban material that is critical of their governments? How regulated do social media sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube need to be?
“The Cleaners” is a slick film with a film noir feel. It suits the exploration of the dark side of the cyberspace but ultimately the doc doesn’t shine much of a light on its subject. Stylish though it is, the film flits from topic to topic with the swiftness of fibre optic broadband. It covers too much ground, raising questions that are never answered. To be fair the subject of Internet censorship is relatively new and rife with legal and moral complexity.
At the very least this entertaining but unexacting documentary should inspire conversation about the control large, unaccountable corporations have over the flow of information into our homes.