With half his head turned to the camera, while the other half remains focused on the computer screen before him, the man announces “I’ve seen hundreds of beheadings”.
This man – who is forced to remain anonymous due to strict non-disclosure agreements – is a cleaner; a content moderator entrusted with the responsibility of viewing content uploaded to social media, and deciding whether it should be allowed to remain on the platform.
One of the tens of thousands of predominantly Filipino men and women burdened with this responsibility, his decision to speak to German directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck for their documentary, The Cleaners, comes with great risk. Private security firms keep a close eye on the activities of cleaners both offline and online, and on the rare occasion that they speak about their work, they are required to use code words instead of mentioning the names of social media companies that refuse to admit such cleaners even exist.
Nevertheless, the risk must be taken to highlight a side of social media operation that has rarely been discussed publicly.
For Block and Riesewieck, their journey to learn about the cleaners started in March of 2003, when a video of a young girl being raped by an older man was posted on Facebook, and remained available for eight hours.
“It was shared 32,000 times, and liked 5,000 times”, recalls Block, in an interview with The 8 Percent.
“That was the starting point, because we asked ourselves ‘why is this happening? Why is material like this online, and why is it not much more often seen on social media platforms?’.”
Their research led them to Manila, where third-party recruitment companies were hiring thousands of young people, fresh out of college, to view 25,000+ social media posts per day (that’s only 1% of Facebook posts made every minute), and decide what should stay, and what should be removed.
Intense secrecy was a requirement of the job. Those who worked for Facebook, for instance, were unable to admit it. Instead, they working on the enigmatically named ‘Project Honey Badger’.
“This seemed really unbelievable considering the attitude at Facebook and Silicon Valley, where they always want to seem so open-minded (about) making the world a better place.”
The man says he’s seen so many beheadings that he can recognise the blade the perpetrators used by the angle of the cut. He proves it, on screen, by analysing a gruesome image with the kind of emotional dislocation that only comes with experience.
“If you work eight to ten hours a day in front of a screen, reviewing the worst content you can possibly imagine – beheadings, sexual abuse, extreme violence – it has an effect on your mental health”, says Block.
“What they’re experiencing is very similar, for example, to the PTSD soldiers suffer after coming back from war. We heard cases of people who were afraid to go into public places because they were reviewing terror attacks in public places. We heard about people who couldn’t have relationships with their partners anymore, because they’re reviewing hardcore pornography and sexual violence.”
The level of trauma the cleaners deal with, Riesewieck clarifies, comes down to how they justify their work. Many are conservative Catholics who see themselves as a bulwark against great evil.
“The idea that Jesus died on the cross to take the sins of the world on him – they believe that what they do is actually sacrifice for the sinners of the world again.”
Then there are those who see their work as an extension of the mission of their President, Rodrigo Duterte, whose death squads have killed thousands of drug dealers, addicts, and homeless people in the name of bringing an end to crime.
“It’s not just the one content moderator we portray in our film, but several of them who support their president in the sense and say ‘what he does for the analogue world, we do for the digital world’.”
As The Cleaners continues, Block and Riesewieck reveal how social media companies, in their proclaimed goal of remaining fair and balanced, are actually inflaming social and political issues.
From political reporting in Turkey, to the genocide of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, the low-qualified, inexperienced cleaners are tasked with making weighty decisions far beyond their comprehension.
“What we’ve found is that there are so many grey areas in the guidelines, where people have to interpret which of the guidelines to apply to the specific cases they’re facing”, explains Riesewieck.
“This is what journalists traditionally have to do in a lot of cases, with a lot of different staff members, for a long time. They have to figure out whether to publish a picture, how to publish it, how to contextualise it, and so on. These are the kind of choices content moderators have to make within a few seconds.”
“In many situations, content moderators are just using their gut feeling to make a decision.”
Another cleaner reveals a case in which a man was livestreaming as he set up a rope with which to commit suicide. Policy dictated that the stream could not be cut unless the man died. And so he had no choice but to watch a stranger consider ending his life, and wait for one of two decisions.
Intercut with interviews with the cleaners are discussions with former Silicon Valley employees, such as ex-Google and Twitter policy maker Nicole Wong, and Senate committee meetings regarding the endeavours of social media companies to moderate content on their platforms. These segments are rife with a lot of lip service and vague non-answers to government representatives, many of whom don’t understand the technology they are discussing.
If the companies themselves aren’t willing to address the issues they are compounding, and governments prove incapable of forcing them to, Block and Riesewieck believe it is up to users to drive the change.
“If you look at the profits Facebook or Google are bringing in a month, they for sure have the capacity to (create change). But that’s the problem; the business model of these companies is to make as much money as possible. They have to change this business model, they have to take more responsibility for what they do. And until they do, we have to fight to make them do so. In a way, we as users have to become more like members of a digital world, fight for the rights we have, and make sure private companies can’t take the responsibility of deciding what is allowed in this online world, and what is not.”
In a year that has shone a light on the dark underbelly of social media more than any other, The Cleaners is a revolution. When Cambridge Analytica was unmasked, cries of “I told you so” were not uncommon.
What The Cleaners reveals is an aspect of social media very few members of the public are likely to have been aware of prior to watching it, and one that reveals the gut-wrenching extent of the issues inspired by these technological titans.
Shot vividly with the tone of a spy thriller, it’s a documentary that calls out for change. Change for the sake of users. Change for the sake of the cleaners. Change for the sake of the world.
It’s a call that must be heard.
The Cleaners will screen exclusively at ACMI Melbourne
from October 19th to November 6th.