The «cleaners» of global social media platforms live in harsh societies and conditions of comparative clutter to those after whom they are cleaning up.
At the 2018 Rotterdam Film Festival, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck presented their new documentary The Cleaners. It begins with a dry and overused list of statistics: Three billion people are connected worldwide through social media websites. Every minute, 500 hours worth of video footage is uploaded on YouTube alone. In that time, some 450,000 Tweets are posted on Twitter and 2.5 million Facebook posts are also published. The Facebook community is estimated to include at least 2 billion members – nearly a quarter of the world. Its influence in opinion formation is larger than that of any nation state.
Recruited from the streets
The Cleaners travels from the high-tech, pristine work quarters of the company’s engineers and their day-to-day conditions, to derelict homes in Manila, where so-called content moderators or Facebook’s «cleaners» live. Nearly all of them are recruited from the street, without any educational background in politics, sociology or psychology, not to mention knowledge about art theory and expression. They are hired merely to «delete». Officially, Facebook is not allowed to employ content control staff in the Philippines. However, local outsourcing transmitter companies render it possible. They are the bodies that deliver Facebook’s paycheques.
The filmmakers are given intimate access into the lives of these «cleaners», following them to their homes, to their leisure activities, church, discos and game halls. Some of them run a big risk by speaking out – which they did, even though they all signed nondisclosure agreements. Other insider statements appear as anonymous emails or as snippets of online communications.
«These moderators defend the «principles» they have ultimately been instructed to uphold.
Facebook can be said to apply radical Islamic censorship patterns.»
These moderators defend the «principles» they have ultimately been instructed to uphold. The filmmakers make great efforts to capture their mindsets without interference. Essentially, it seems, the cleaners believe themselves responsible for ensuring the Facebook platform (and thereby society at large), is healthier through their attempts to prevent suspicious content from appearing online. Some hold the view that the world is simply insane and their role in it is to fight evil. However, there are moments when their personal opinions and misinterpretations of situations occur.
One fragment shows a picture in which a soldier is mistaken for an ISIS member. The picture is subsequently removed from the site. In one instance, a «cleaner» postulates that state representatives should not be offended on these platforms. Another compares himself to Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines.