FILM REVIEW: The Cleaners (2018)

Community News & Features Dec 7, 2018 at 7:34 pm

Movie-Review_Cleaners-1The scary side of cleaning social media sites in the Philippines

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

“Im Schatten der Netzwelt” (literally, in the shadow of the net world; English: “The Cleaners”) is an incisive documentary that parachutes into the sweatshop-like labor of digital scrubbers, crawls into the scary side of social media and shines a light on complex questions about cyberspace.

Rookie filmmakers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block spent several years gaining access to the clandestine world of content moderation in the Philippines, where a large chunk of content reviews of giant tech companies like Facebook and Google are outsourced to third-party operations of in virtual search-and-destroy mission to rid the Internet of objectionable images, determining whether or not they violate a given site’s terms of service.

The Cleaners sits down with a handful of these people and examines what they do in their job but does not explain its social toll. It starts with the cleaners — notwithstanding their glamorous title of “content moderators” — shown in empty office buildings at night, narrating the footage with a monotone “delete, delete, ignore, ignore, ignore,” as computer monitors illuminate their figures. But no flashy dramatic effects are necessary to show the disturbing realities these people face.

According to the documentary, around 25,000 materials are erased out of 500,000 videos or 2.5 million Facebook posts from over 3 billion global internet users.

These include content such as Islamic State beheading videos to human genitalia, child abuse, pornography and political chaos. As one moderator in the film says, “this job makes you think violence is normal.”

Here, we see the cleaners appear to be busy working in their cubicles. All of whom are unnamed, some of whom are shot to carefully hide their identity. The film never reveals that this is not their real place of employment, but it is a suitable set piece all the same.

When the filmmakers began shooting the documentary in 2015, they spent the first eight months traveling back and forth between Berlin and Manila, just trying to track down the companies performing this labor, and then forge relationships with their employees to go on camera and talk about their labor.

Through the course of the film, Riesewieck and Block don’t try to answer any big questions or offer a satisfying conclusion to their viewers, but they do very convincingly demonstrate how deep the problems of content moderation go.

There’s also a weird blind spot about the religious culture of the Philippines – one of the moderators defines the job as looking for and eliminating “sin,” and The Cleaners just lets it hang there without going any further.

The documentary grapples with the central tension that plagues internet platforms: free speech versus clean discourse. It does so not just by interviewing experts, but also juxtaposing stories of people censored by the platforms—like an artist whose controversial rendering of a naked Donald Trump was taken down by a moderator in 2016—with those at the end of the decision-making chain, the moderators who try to follow the platforms’ rules. Meanwhile, profit-driven giant tech companies duck the hard questions: when is something worth keeping up, and when should it be taken down? Who should be dictating these rules? The closest one ever getting to know what the glimmering Silicon Valley really thinks is through the mouthpieces of its lawyers, when they are summoned by government hearings. And as one might expect, those lawyers don’t say much.

In the end, The Cleaners sums up about how terrible the mess that is the virtual reality, but not exactly how as horrible these people’s jobs in reality are. When democracy, transparency and debate are delegated to just about anyone, one can’t simply decide to ignore it.

David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said there is danger in hiring third-party outsourcing companies to moderate content of the principals. “Outsourcing must be disturbing for people in democratic societies. People wouldn’t be surprised if in the future there’s less information available to them, less edgy, less provocative information available online—and I think that we would be poorer societies for it,” Kaye said in the film.

Having its Canadian Premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in May this year, The Cleaners was broadcasted on the PBS series Independent Lens on November 12. It is also available for free streaming on for two weeks.

The Cleaners

Directors: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck; producer: Christian Beetz, Reinhardt Beetz, Christopher Clements; cinematography: Axel Schneppat, Max Preiss; editors: editors: Philipp Gromov, Markus Schmidt, Hansjörg Weißbrich; screenplay: Georg Tschurtschenthaler. music: John Gürtler, Jan Miserre, Lars Voges; sound: Karsten Höfer. In Filipino and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 88 minutes.