'The Cleaners': Inside the Dirtiest and Most Secretive Job on the Internet
Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck's doc reveals the moral quandary of internet content moderation. Facebook, Twitter, and Google wish it didn’t.
The internet is a massive tapestry of humanity. It is an endless repository of information, a tool that can be used to any end—however democratic, authoritarian, benevolent, or sinister, depending entirely on the human being who wields it.
But some things never make it online. Hours after they are posted, some Facebook photos, tweets, and videos are deleted. Who are the people deciding what we do and don't see on the internet? That's a question that Facebook, Twitter, and Google would rather you not ask.
The Cleaners, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, reveals the hidden sector of internet content moderation. It is a job characterized by extreme secrecy. The work is outsourced to Manila, where anonymous men and women, contracted through middlemen by Facebook and other major social media companies, screen 25,000 posts a day, deciding within seconds whether to press "ignore" or "delete" on those flagged as potentially abusive content. Some of these decisions are straightforward, such as eliminating child pornography or videos of beheadings uploaded by terrorists. But what about an artful painting of Donald Trump in the nude? A photo of a Libyan refugee child who drowned crossing the Mediterranean? Both were deleted by a devout Catholic living thousands of miles away, who sees her job as a battle against sin. “Just like our president [Rodrigo Duterte] is doing everything he can to keep the Philippines safe, I’m doing the same in my job,” she says in the film.
"[Facebook and Twitter] obviously don't want the public to debate on this question of what we want to see and what we don't want to see. This is not only about the digital sphere; the consequences can be people's lives."
The Cleaners plays like a noir thriller with dire real-world consequences. Interviewing dozens of journalists, ethicists, and former employees of major tech companies, Block and Riesewieck examine how the fundamental design of social media platforms presents a major moral quandary with the potential to undermine democracy. No Film School sat down with the co-directors at Sundance 2018 to discuss how they made a film about one of the most secretive industries in the modern world.
The Cleaners is currently screening this week at CPH:DOX.
No Film School: Why did you decide to make a film about content moderators overseas?
Hans Block: Both of us have been very fascinated, but also skeptical about social media for a long time. In 2013, there was a child abuse video uploaded online, and we asked ourselves, "Why don't we see these things more often on social media platforms?" We started to research whether there's someone who is filtering or curating the internet, and that's how we came in contact with the scientist Sarah Roberts from UCLA, a professor who's researching content moderation. She gave us an idea that this work is being outsourced to field teams in Manila, where thousands of young Philippine workers are monitoring and screening the worst you can imagine for eight to ten hours a day in order to keep the internet clean.
NFS: Once you knew that this was happening, what were the first steps that you took to make the film?
Block: First, we needed to find out which companies work for Facebook and Twitter and YouTube because there are so many of these companies in Manila. One of the major challenges we were facing was that these companies actively hide this work. That means that they not only give other names to this job so that nobody can recognize what it is—it's the dirtiest job on the internet—but they also give codewords to their workers. So instead of saying, "I work for Facebook," or "I work for Twitter," these workers have to sign nondisclosure agreements. They are not allowed to talk to anybody about what they do or see or feel about this work—not even to their families. It's a completely hidden industry, and, of course, that made us even more curious about why.
NFS: How did you find subjects? Was there a reluctance to speak about this, even if off-camera, or did you find that people were somewhat relieved that they could finally talk about their work?
Block: When we eventually got in touch with some of the workers, we had to find individual solutions for how they could protect themselves. But we were really surprised that a lot of them urgently wanted to let the world know what they do. Most of them told us it's actually one of the most important jobs of the internet: "You couldn't even imagine how the internet would look if we were not there. It would be a complete mess." They have a huge responsibility because it's not only deciding about [cut-and-dry] cases, but it's also deciding about political content, which can trigger war. This is important for certain groups in political conflict; if [the moderators] delete the wrong things, this can really silence certain groups. So a lot of them are proud of the responsibility they have and at the same time, it's overwhelming for them.
"That was one of the major challenges: how do you make a film about an industry that is completely secret?"
What we didn't expect when we talked to the workers was that for most of them, it's not just a day job; it's like a religious mission. They like to talk about what they do because they are proud of it. They are cleaning up the internet for the whole world. They liberate the world from its sins.
Moritz Riesewieck: You should know that 90% of Filipinos are Christians. This is the result of the colonization by the Spanish and after that, the U.S. In the younger generation, most of the people are still really strong believers. They are really very active; they post quotes from the Bible every day.
NFS: Just backing up a little bit... how did you take this film from the idea phase to production?
Block: It was a long process. Originally, our research was meant for a theater play; both of us are theater directors, and this is our first film. When we came back from the first research trip in Manila and presented in a lecture in Berlin, there was kind of a media boom. Everybody in Germany was reporting on our subject. The next day, some film production companies called us. That was the first time we thought, "Let's do a film about this."
Riesewieck: It was completely cinematic. We were stunned by the atmosphere in Manila; it felt like Gotham City, somehow. You have people still living in huts outside of the border of the city in really [bad] conditions. A lot of these workers live there with their families, and then they have to go to offices that are completely clean and they work on the 23rd floor. Of course, it's a nice alternative to a lot of the jobs they usually do there, like being a scavenger working on a dump site. One of our protagonists in the film says that was always her biggest fear—to end up being a scavenger on a dump site. And then she started this work, which is of course something like being a digital scavenger.
NFS: That was incredibly striking, that comparison. So, you did have the very concrete challenge of not being able to show certain subjects' faces, and, at some points, not even being able to hear their voices. How did you conceive, then, of visually representing your subjects?
Block: That was one of the major challenges: how do you make a film about an industry that is completely secret, and you have no access to the offices? How do you make a film about workers who have to be secret? Otherwise, they face reprisals because of their contracts. We were forced to find solutions.
There was one moment that was really interesting for us: one of the protagonists started to moderate in front of us, at home, on his laptop. We were like, "Oh my god, we have to show this!" Within two seconds, he was deleting or ignoring an image, and the images he saw were very, very horrible.
Luckily, we found an office space that was already closed, so we got access [to it].
Riesewieck: We thought a lot about what it is we wanted to reveal. We don't believe in hidden cameras. Our main focus was on the situation itself: when a worker is sitting in one of these cubicles high above the city and feels powerful. They decide about political conflicts, they can silence groups in a society, they can easily influence political decisions by the decisions they make [instantaneously]. Therefore, it was perfect to have this [closed] office space to become a kind of a frame for the film.
Riesewieck: We always wanted to return to the victims of the censorship in our film. For example, there is an NGO in London trying to document the war in Syria. They document airstrikes which have caused deaths of a lot of civilians. They have faced problems because all their content is deleted again and again. On the other hand, some people abuse social media by posting hatred against minorities, but some of them are accepted [by these moderators] and they can spread their hatred easily. It was important for us to not only tell the story of these workers, but also to discuss the enormous power that is outsourced to them.
NFS: It's pretty terrifying to see the magnitude of the moral arbitration. Did you get any sort of pushback from Facebook or Twitter or companies that didn't want you to make this film?
Riesenwieck: It was completely impossible to reach any of the Facebook representatives. We contacted them again and again and again. And not only Facebook—all the other social media companies as well. We realized the extent of the secrecy behind all this. The companies obviously don't want the public to debate on this question of what we want to see and what we don't want to see. People would start realizing that this business model has an error by design, and if we don't change the entire architecture of the social media platform, they will cause a lot of harm. This is not only about the digital sphere; the consequences are real. The consequences can be people's lives.
"In the analog sphere, we would never accept a monarchy in our democratic societies. We wouldn't allow people to be monitored. So why do we allow people in Silicon Valley to be kings?"
Block: And that is why we so happy that this film is showing at the Sundance Film Festival. It means that this film has a bigger audience and that's what the film's about—to have a public debate on those topics or to put some pressure on the social media companies and change the responsibility they have.
NFS: If you had the ability to affect some sort of change from the inside of one of these social media companies, what do you think the new architecture should look like, in terms of how to change the way that content is moderated?
Riesenwieck: The architecture as it is now is mainly designed to attract attention. Tristan Harris, one of our experts in the film, a former design expert at Google, says that these companies are attention-seekers, which means all of the design of these platforms is made to get the most number of clicks. This is good for advertising. So, which content gets the most attention? It's the extreme content. So it is no coincidence that these platforms are flooded with extreme content; it is actually caused by the design of these platforms. This is something we really need to change.
NFS: So it would almost mean redesigning the way that social media operates—its inherent goals.
Riesenwieck: Definitely, definitely. We shouldn't allow companies to define our digital public sphere any longer. We should take over. We should claim that we, as democratic societies, want the control back. In the analog sphere, we would never accept a monarchy in our democratic societies. We wouldn't allow people to be monitored. So why do we allow people in Silicon Valley to be kings of the digital sphere and outsource all their responsibility to young Filipinos?
NFS: What did you learn about the process of filmmaking as first-time filmmakers?
Riesenwieck: I think it is really important for new filmmakers to prepare themselves very, very precisely, because then you have the freedom to react to things that are not expected. Shooting a documentary film is all about reacting to unexpected things.
Block: We worked on this film for the last two years. You need a lot of energy to do that. You have to fight for your film very often. Don't give up the fight. Believe in your idea of your film and fight for it.