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The Cleaners is a riveting documentary about how social media might be ruining the world

The Cleaners is a riveting documentary about how social media might be ruining the world


A look at the content moderators that control what we see turns into a manifesto against the internet itself

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Photo: Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

We’re in a cultural moment where the impact of social media isn’t something that we just notice when we catch ourselves heads-down in our phones or computers. It’s something that’s underscored with almost daily news stories, with each new revelation seemingly more sinister than the last. It’s so ever-present that it can be easy to tune out, which makes the Sundance documentary The Cleaners pack such a devastating wallop.

The film, from first-time documentary directors Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, starts with one unseen corner of the internet: the content moderators that work for major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, spending their time looking at every single picture and video that has been flagged for potentially being objectionable. But while revealing the story of those individuals is an interesting place to start, the filmmakers have much bigger ideas they want to tackle. The movie broadens its scope to cover what the directors clearly see as a real-time global catastrophe — a situation where tech companies are so eager to grow, expand, and monetize that they fail to recognize the ways their platforms are fomenting hate, discord, and violence, with devastating results.

What’s the genre?

Good old-fashioned talking heads documentary, spiced up here and there with some fancy computer graphics.

What’s it about?

Ostensibly The Cleaners is about the outsourced workers that these companies use to determine whether photos and videos that have been shared online should be allowed to stay there. The film tracks a handful of people based in Manila that spend their days looking at terrorist videos, political propaganda, self-harm videos, and child pornography, breaking them into binary categories: “ignore,” where they let the post stand, and “delete,” where the imagery is removed for violating community standards.

An ah-ha moment for anyone who’s wondered why benign things are censored

Riesewieck and Block initially seem interested in pointing out how poorly conceived the outsourcing of moderation is as a business practice. One of the “cleaners” that specializes in pornography, for example, admits she didn’t know anything about porn (and maybe not much about sex) before she started her job, making her an odd choice for a subject matter expert. Another employee, who has been told by his supervisor to be extremely vigilant about anything related to ISIS, explains to camera that an infamous photo of an American soldier terrorizing an Abu Ghraib prisoner with a barking dog is actually an image of an ISIS soldier terrifying a captive — and therefore needs to be pulled from the service.

It’s an ah-ha moment for anyone who’s ever wondered why seemingly innocuous material sometimes disappears off social networks, but the story of the cleaners — and the tragic, long-term impact of watching such horrific material day in and day out — is only the vehicle for the film’s larger ambitions.

Photo: Sundance Institute

What’s it really about?

Simply put, it’s how social networking platforms have created a feedback loop that is irrevocably harming our real-world social fabric. Riesewieck and Block pull in journalists, ethicists, and former employees of various tech companies to offer a macro perspective on how the platforms have been designed, and what impact they are actually having upon our global discourse. The filmmakers also thread in footage from the Senate hearings held last year with the top legal executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The latter ends up playing like a lot of obfuscation and hand-waving on the part of the tech companies — but as the film explains, there’s a reason for that.

It’s because the platforms in question have been expressly designed to generate interest and engagement above all else, and it’s in a platform’s best interests to never show a user news or information that would truly challenge their world view or turn them off, leading to insular bubbles where people are only fed the information they already want to see. Compounding that is the fact that outrage is awfully good at generating engagement, so we’re faced with a situation where these platforms have become algorithmically tuned to inspire and provoke as much extreme behavior as possible. On top of that is the idea that the cleaners themselves are tasked with turning what should be complex, nuanced questions — Is artist Illma Gore’s painting of a nude Donald Trump protected political speech, or an act of bullying, as one cleaner claims? — into the simplistic buckets of “ignore” and “delete”. The result is a system that renders the broader population angry, incited, and utterly ill-informed.

Is it good?

It is! At times The Cleaners does feel rambly, as if the filmmakers started out telling this small story about the Manila employees, and ended up being distracted by the much broader social implications. The personal stories of the employees never end up serving as the throughline the film wants them to be, and it’s easy to imagine a version of the documentary that tackled the larger problem, with the cleaners being just one chapter of the story along the way rather than a framing device.

But Riesewieck and Block nevertheless do a tremendous job of taking subject matter that could be too heady, or that people could simply be too tired of hearing about, and making it seem vibrant and incredibly vital. None of the ideas expressed by the interview subjects in the film are necessarily new, but they’re laid out in a way that are easily accessible no matter what level of technical expertise that audience has. There are a few stylistic crutches that the movie leans on too heavily — the filmmakers are particularly fond of cutting to a computer-generated visualization of social network activity, that starts to feel rather dated — but that’s all balanced out by the real-world stakes that the documentary is constantly underscoring.

It paints such a bleak picture that you’ll want to delete your Facebook account in protest

Silicon Valley companies that espouse the power of global communities and open sharing also voluntarily censor their own services at the behest of governments like Turkey, essentially undermining their own stated ethics in the name of gaining a foothold in a new market. Facebook serves as a primary news source for citizens in Myanmar, but the adoption of the platform by hate groups has led to increased violence against refugees there — something that the company apparently doesn’t feel compelled to address. And then there’s the polarization that’s simply become part of the political landscape here in the United States.

With all of its disparate threads, the movie argues that no matter what rhetoric they spout, these tech giants are capitalistic endeavors first and foremost, and as a result are simply refusing to acknowledge the negative impact they’re having upon our larger culture because doing so would be bad for business. The film paints such a bleak picture that it’s hard to not walk away with the feeling that we should all immediately delete our Twitter and Facebook accounts — not out of protest, but out of sheer self-preservation.

What should it be rated?

There is a lot of uncomfortable imagery shown in this film, and the cleaners describe the horrifying things they’ve seen online in graphic detail. This is an “R”.

How can I actually watch it?

There is no distribution deal in place yet, but given Netflix’s general fervor with documentaries I’d be shocked if the company didn’t snap this film up sooner rather than later. The Cleaners is a movie of the moment, and whomever ends up distributing it is going find themselves attracting a lot of attention.