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Review: The Cleaners

June 22, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter sell themselves as being open for anyone to post anything, they in reality all have strict guidelines that are heavily enforced by anonymous content moderators.

The majority of the work these “cleaners” do is outsourced to other countries like the Philippines, where the workers are given long hours, paid poor wages, and are also generally unprepared for what they will encounter when policing the internet, often having only seconds to decide what stays or goes.

Although their full identities have to remain hidden, filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck are able to tell some of their stories in The Cleaners, a thought provoking documentary that feels incredibly timely for multiple reasons.

The film offers an engaging and surprisingly balanced look at these secret, outsourced moderators who decide what content is appropriate for social media, and it raises fascinating questions about online censorship and who should decide what we see.  When it comes to removing illegal content like child porn and graphic self-harm videos, they are obviously doing the right thing by taking it down.  But when faced with disturbing images from war zones that could serve a journalistic purpose, or more subversive political and satirical content that should be protected by the first amendment, their jobs become much murkier.

These free speech issues really came to a head around the 2016 presidential election, exacerbated by the spread of “fake news” and Donald Trump’s heavy use of twitter to help him win.  The film does a good job of not really taking sides, giving equal voice to both Illma Gore, who painted a mocking portrait of naked Trump, as well as the provocative street artist Sabo, who have both had their deeply polarizing and heavily political online content called into question.

It’s thankless work that these moderators are doing, made even worse by the fact that they have to reach quotas of removing 25,000 images a day, and aren’t given adequate psychological help.  The amount of extremely disturbing content that they are forced to view is leading to severe mental health issues and even suicide, not to mention the fact that most of them are practising Catholics, who feel overwhelming guilt for viewing sinful content.  This is ultimately a disturbing but important glimpse at the work they are doing, which has huge implications for society as a whole.

The Cleaners is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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