The Cleaners Review

It’s been a couple of months since I wrote up my first impressions on The Cleaners. I had copped a facebook ban for posting a picture of Prince Harry in Nazi attire, and it had made me think back to when I saw the film at the Revelation Film Festival. With Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s documentary hitting Sydney and Melbourne from the 18th of October, I thought I would revisit the film and explore why it’s one of the most vital documentaries of the modern age. 

When I first watched The Cleaners, I wrote two notes down about it: 

  • Devastating to the point of nausea
  • Impossible to do anything about this

And both of those notes are still true after repeat viewings.

The Cleaners focuses on the content moderators who Google, Facebook, and YouTube, employ via outsourcing. There is no direct link between these giant companies and the moderators (who are mostly based in Asian countries, like the Philippines), but it’s clear that the work these moderators are doing is for these social media giants. Their role is to peruse photos and videos of potentially contentious subject matter, and then remove them from the internet. On paper, this sounds like a fairly innocuous role – after all, how bad can the material on the internet be? 

Well, pretty bloody bad. 

Block and Riesewieck work to show the poverty that thrives in Asian countries, with the demands of the West put pressure on the East, and the cruel hands of capitalism creeping into small towns and forcing horrendous jobs onto those who can’t attain anything better. Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s searing documentary Complicit takes a deep look at another caustic industry that monopolises on the underpaid and undervalued employees of the many factories in China that produce mobile phones. The employees in these factories have taken up positions there as the farm lives that they were once destined to live are no longer financially stable for their ageing families. In turn, the toxic chemicals in the production of the phones causes cancers and illness. These are physical ailments that claim their lives, causing destruction where there once was hope for their families. 

The Cleaners is no different. A young girl takes a job as a moderator in a bid to escape a life of scouring rubbish tips for something, anything valuable. Yet, by the films end, she has to leave the toxic world of online moderation as it has simply become too much of a toll on her mental state for her to go on. And she is not alone, with another employee taking their own lives after having to moderate extreme content.

For some moderators, the act of moderation is one that they see is their religious duty. Like most countries in the world, the Phllippines is a religiously diverse one, with a majority of people following Catholicism, and with others being of the Muslim faith. With this in mind, the role of having to deal with extreme content is one that challenges their religion: sex, violence, nudity – all things which go against the teachings of their respective religion. Yet, if this moderator is the one to wear the weight of having to clean the world of such sins, then aren’t they going to be the one rewarded in the after life? 

But what of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines president? A man who rose to power and has made a name for himself as being someone who wants to rid the country of all drugs, in turn taking to the street to execute suspected drug dealers and users. It’s an act that has caused fury around the world, with many damning the leaders actions. Yet, for some of these social media content moderators, they see their role as a ‘digital Duterte’, ‘if you want a clean space, there need to be some victims’. 

This varied perspective from the ‘cleaners’ of the internet is not surprising – after all, we live in a varied world with countless different ideologies making the world what it is. What is surprising is the way that the world at large seems to disregard the traumatic process of having to look at imagery of beheadings, suicides, child pornography, and more. For those in the West, we see this as an expected bonus of using social media, and we never think about the consequences. We report a photo, and then hours later we get a response that says that the photo was removed, and we think nothing more of it. Heck, in my piece I wrote in August, I said exactly that – I’m fine with this happening. 

But then you read an article about how Facebook has failed to assist those with trauma by providing counselling, and you wonder if this level of safety is worth inflicting mental damage on an unknown person. It’s like a simplified version of ‘the box‘ – you press a button, and someone, somewhere in the world will be witness to a vile image, but that image is no longer in your view, so all is ok. There is no simple answer to this problem – which is where the nausea comes into effect. 

The world of social media is supposed to unite everyone, it’s supposed to bring the world that little bit closer together. No longer are we living in a world of ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’, in theory, we are much more connected than we’ve ever been. Yet, this digital world in turn breeds a world of disconnectedness, causing untruths to be spawned onto the internet and taken as gospel – as is the case with the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, where Facebook has essentially become the internet, and fear and anger spread like wildfire, causing the needless persecution of Rohingya minorities. 

We are alone with our devices more than we are connected. It has – as the show suggests – become our black mirror, reflecting what we want to hear and what we want to see back at us. We have become our own self moderators, flagging content we don’t want, liking things we do want, and attempting to remove as much toxicity in our life as possible. It’s almost the end of 2018, and odds are there’ll be another listicle about how to remove toxicity from your life in 2019, and just like the ones for 2018, social media will be the number one thing to remove.

Yet again, social media has become such an insidious thing within our lives. If you don’t have a facebook account, do you even exist? There’s an added sense of suspicion when someone mentions that they don’t have a facebook page – what are you trying to hide? What do you not want the world to see? It has become a vital thing for day to day life – check into places, build an online museum of yourself, create a digital archive that will live on after you’ve gone and be your own eternal legacy item. 

The internet has moved at a rapid pace, with generations now growing up with something that has truly transformed the way we live. And, just like previous revolutions that changed the world, there will be jobs and tasks that will arise that will be unsavoury, yet no less necessary to have around. Content moderation is such a thing. Are we ok with living in a world where we simply farm out the traumatic stuff to lower socio-economic countries, just because massive corporations have the money to do so? Sadly, it feels like there’s not much of a choice.

The Cleaners leaves you with many questions – none which are easy to answer. This is truly one of the most fascinating documentaries to come out in 2018. It’s powerful, it’s important, and it’s extremely timely as well (the film carries up to events at the beginning of 2018). If you are in Sydney or Melbourne, then make sure you schedule time to see this film – this is essential cinema.

Directors: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

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