It’s really exciting when a documentary is artistically groundbreaking and so timely and compelling in its subject matter that everyone who can get in front of a screen should watch it. It’s also rare, requiring large budgets, lots of leeway, visionary directors and, perhaps, Sir David Attenborough.
The Cleaners doesn’t have the jaw-dropping cinematic fireworks of, say, Blue Planet, but if it doesn’t leave you with your mouth hanging uneasily open, I’d advise checking in with your doctor. This one-hour documentary is compact. Small. Dark, in both visual palette and subject matter. It’s a little like looking at a black hole, which is perhaps a more significant cinematic achievement than I’m giving it credit for—because that heavy, static, darkened sensibility is actually pretty rife. Let me start here: Your perception of reality is being curated by a group of basically clandestine content moderators in the Philippines, who work for a third-party company contracted with Facebook, Twitter, Google and other major platforms. Their job is to scrub those platforms of offensive, illegal or incendiary content.
If you’re asking, “OK, yeah, I don’t think child pornography should be rampaging across the Internet, but isn’t there a line in the sand about what one person versus another finds incendiary or damaging?” the answer is a huge, resounding “yes.” But the Internet that organically proliferates and the Internet you are aware of are not the same, and the calls about what gets filed where are being made by individual humans whose own cultures, backgrounds, politics, ethics and opinions are shaping their judgment. In dim cubicles in a faceless office complex on the other side of the planet from Silicon Valley, Facebook (for example) is being watched, tirelessly, by these people. They are under a lot of pressure. They have metrics. They have to process so many thousands of images, videos, and comments and decide whether or not to remove them—and decide “correctly,” too. If they don’t, they might get fired.
Also, as one of them puts it, “I could trigger a war.”
In the Senate hearings where legal reps for Facebook and Google were grilled about their privacy and security practices during the run-up to the 2016 election, there was an interesting moment where Facebook claimed to have “about 150” content moderators. When asked if that was a sufficient number of people to govern the enormous amount of content generated on the platform, the guy hedged, and made a vague reference to it actually being several thousand. He was oddly cagey about it, and after watching The Cleaners, you’ll get why.
The content scavengers in Manila are… specialized, or seem to be. One looks at child pornography for 10 hours a day. Another notes that she has constant recurring dreams about penises because she looks at them all through her shift, trying to decide if they are acceptable or unacceptable penises (yes, she has criteria). Another is a terrorism specialist (“I’ve seen hundreds of beheadings,” she says blandly, noting that the “bad” ones are when they don’t have a sharp blade). One guy was in charge of “livestream self-harm.” Until he hanged himself.
Of course, it goes beyond the easy-call flat-out illegal stuff like child porn. Illma Gore, an L.A.-based artist, was banned from Facebook after posting a nude painting of Donald Trump. (Ask the content moderator penis specialist about it.) The age-old debate about the difference between art and pornography is now being decided with a click, by an anonymous young person on the other side of the world. Facebook doesn’t want to have to forego the huge revenue stream that is the nation of Turkey. Turkey’s authoritarian ruler bans any form of criticism of the state. Facebook’s solution is to abide by that nation’s rules in order to do business there, and Turkish Facebook is curiously devoid of that content, because IP address-specific barriers prevent it from being seen there. In Myanmar, Facebook essentially is the Internet: People who have never seen an email log into it every day; it’s the default portal on their mobile phones. The platform has been directly linked, more than once and not by shady conspiracy theorists, to the ongoing genocide against Rohingya Muslims in that country. On it goes. Echo chambers. Fake news. Political violence. Physical violence.
The Cleaners will in all likelihood make you uncomfortable. It should. If Facebook were a sovereign nation, it would be the most populous on the planet. Think about that for a second. Now imagine that beneath the veneer of free, organic, unrestricted exchange of information and ideas, there’s a totally different reality, one where reality itself is curated, targeted, custom-designed for different demographics. Delete. Delete. Ignore. Delete.
The Cleaners, from Independent Lens, airs tonight at 10 p.m. on PBS. Check your local listings.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.