Thousands of third-world workers are trying to keep the internet clean

There are more than 2.5 billion social media users in the world, creating an amount of content so vast that you have to dial down the scale of their footprint to a single minute to comprehend its size. Every 60 seconds approximately 2.5 million Facebook posts go online, Twitter sees 450,000 tweets, and YouTube uploads 500 hours of footage. There are 1440 of those minutes in a day.

In 2013 a pair of aspiring young German documentary filmmakers, Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block, began to wonder how this ever-rising range of data was regulated. Like many people, they assumed that the policing of illegal or improper content was handled by the same technology that had empowered the leading social media platforms. What they learnt was that algorithms and machine learning were ineffective and that, like numerous dirty jobs throughout history, online moderation had a harried human face.

The result is The Cleaners, a compelling documentary about the people who serve as the gatekeepers of the digital age. Beginning in Manila, the capital of the Philippines and a centre for outsourced third-party content moderation, the tightknit duo’s film reveals the trauma of judging the worst of the internet’s reach, the impossibility of imposing a global standard, and the constant risk to genuine freedom of expression.

“We really wanted to make an awareness of the issue’s complexity and stop [Facebook’s Mark] Zuckerberg and others claiming that, ‘yeah, we’ll fix, it’s easy, we’ll do it for you’,” Riesewieck says. “He won’t and none of them will. It’s a problem we’re going to have to face as a society.”

Social media giants often point to in-house teams attached to national headquarters who are responsible for content moderation, but the overwhelming size of the job actually requires thousands and thousands of contractors in the developing world who make a choice between clicking Ignore and Delete every five seconds.

“I’ve seen hundreds of beheadings,” admits one veteran staffer from the Philippines and the film reveals issues with trauma and associated disorders compounded by a lack of mental health support. The staff, who had to speak on the condition of anonymity, commute from the slums of Manila to the modern offices of their employers every night and the aesthetic of The Cleaners is one of covert existence, whether in corporate or psychological terms.

“Film transports much more than just connecting facts and we really wanted to have an immersive effect, so that people could feel like they were in the situation that the content moderators were,” Riesewieck says. “You’re in the 23rd floor of a Manila skyscraper, high above the city, and you feel God-like because now you decide what people all over the world can and can’t see. It’s a very special feeling and we wanted to show that.”

The Cleaners

The Cleaners

Both 32-years-old, Riesewieck and Block met while studying theatre directing in Berlin and initially incorporated documentary footage into their early stage productions. The former believes that Germany’s history with populism run disastrously amok has made the country aware of social media’s dangerous contemporary reach.

But in the same way that Filipino moderators can’t understand the cultural specifics of Australian or American satire, German audiences for the documentary lean towards curtailing hate speech while American viewers refuse to consider anything that would be seen as a restriction of their First Amendment right to free speech. There is no solution, let alone an easily digestible one crafted for the movie’s third act.

“The maximum we can do is make the complexity of the whole thing as understandable as possible to keep people from taking sides too easily,” Riesewieck says. “We’re facing a few profit-orientated gatekeepers who control how societies behave and that’s a very dangerous scenario. This is a completely different infrastructure that needs new tools to regulate it. We can’t solve these problems with tools from the analogue world.”

Along with their producers, Riesewieck and Block remain committed to shining a light on the situation and helping their subjects. They’ve connected moderators with psychologists in Manila and Berlin, while a private screening of the film in the Philippines earlier this year allowed many of the staff to show their families what they were actually doing for a living. The likes of Facebook and YouTube, however, prefer to still not engage with The Cleaners.

“For a long time the western world outsourced its analogue waste to this place and now they send their digital waste there, too,” Riesewieck says. “The companies pretend they were already aware of this and pretend that they are already working on fixing it.”

The Cleaners is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne until November 6. In Sydney, The Cleaners screens at Golden Age Cinema, Surry Hills, from October 21, to November 10.

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