Independent Lens: The Cleaners

Independent Lens: The Cleaners

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 10:00pm - 11:00pm

A "content moderator" in Manila, one of the many hired by Silicon Valley to monitor online content.

Courtesy of gebrueder beetz filmproduktion.

Explore the shadow industry of content moderators in The Cleaners and learn who controls what we see online. 

Meet some of the people who Silicon Valley leaders like Facebook and Google hire to do "digital cleaning." Mostly located in the Philippines, these "content moderators" delete "inappropriate" content on the net, thereby influencing what people around the world see and think. The film charts social media's evolution from a shared vision of a global village to a dangerous web of fake news, extremism and radicalization. Directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, Independent Lens: The Cleaners premieres Monday, November 12, 2018 at 10:00 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

"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."

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.