INDEPENDENT LENS: The Cleaners
Airs Monday, Nov. 12, 2018 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV
—Explore the Hidden, Shadowy World of Digital Cleaning by Silicon Valley’s Content Moderators—
“Fake news.” Violent pornography. Terrorist propaganda.
Everyone agrees that the initial dream of the internet as a utopian global community has evolved into something much more sinister.
Silicon Valley leaders and lawmakers have taken steps to remove some of the internet’s most hateful sites and content, but who actually sifts through the net and removes them?
“The Cleaners” looks at five digital cleaners or “content moderators” – young people in an outsourced post in the Philippines who spend each day scanning the net and deciding what to keep and what to delete.
At their inception, social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter claimed to be creating a boundless, borderless community where unfettered communication would lead to greater freedom and understanding.
But the universal pervasiveness of these sites also affords an easy platform for those seeking to spread something more than just snapshots of their vacation.
Misleading facts posing as news, unsettling images, and radical opinions are now so rampant on social media that they are shaping elections, worsening political divides and sparking sporadic acts of violence around the world.
Through interviews with Silicon Valley leaders, “The Cleaners” reveals the industry’s little-known secret: a set of rules, criteria and processes by which these companies monitor the material posted to their sites — a job carried out by people known as “content moderators.”
And while the policies on what constitutes permissible content are written in Silicon Valley, the global headquarters for content moderation is in the city of Manila in the Philippines.
There, a vast army of young people are employed as “digital scavengers,” moderating thousands upon thousands of troubling images and videos during the course of a ten-hour shift.
“The Cleaners” delves into the lives of five of these content moderators, uncovering the reality of their often-traumatic work.
While most people agree that the most troubling of these images should be removed, some of the deleted pictures include legitimate artistic expression as well as documentation of actual events in places cut off from the media.
Featured are activists whose images have been removed, including organizations documenting war crimes in Syria and Myanmar.
So what’s the solution?
Is it possible for social media to return to its utopian ideal? How can we make sure that we penalize those who spread lies, hate and violence without censoring those whose aim is to share art, opinions or expose under-reported news? And, most importantly, who decides which is which?
"Eighty-one percent of adult Americans use the internet and almost three-quarters of these regularly use Facebook. The Cleaners tells the little-known story of how Facebook, Google and other online portals monitor the content they distribute, which has an enormous effect on what we see and think," said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer. "In a time of 'fake news,' partisan tensions and eroding trust, ‘The Cleaners’ sheds essential light on how Silicon Valley controls what we see — decisions that can alter our opinions, our values and our political climate."
WATCH ON YOUR SCHEDULE:
This film will be available to stream on demand for a limited time after broadcast beginning Nov. 13.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:
A gebrueder beetz film production. Directors: Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. Directors of Photography: Axel Schneppat and Max Preiss. Sound: Karsten Höfer. Editors: Philipp Gromov, Hansjörg Weißbrich and Markus CM Schmidt. Music: John Gürtler, Jan Miserre and Lars Voges. Producer: Georg Tschurtschenthaler. Executive Producers: Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman and Philippa Kowarsky. Lois Vossen is executive producer for INDEPENDENT LENS.