The Cleaners: How social media outsourced censorship to Third World sweatshops

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

It’s possible you’ve had a post censored by Facebook or some other social media outlet, and may even have had your account suspended. You likely were curious as to who passed judgment on the nude art or profane-but-honest sentiment. 

Allow me to fill in the picture for you, based on the jaw-dropping and worrisome documentary The Cleaners. That person was likely a Filipino in what amounts to a censorship “sweat-shop” in Manila, someone whose day consists of clicking “Ignore” or “Delete” on up to 25,000 images and videos per shift.

Yes, censorship has been out-sourced. 

 A Filipina "digital scavenger" censors a Donald Trump meme in the doc The Cleaners

A Filipina "digital scavenger" censors a Donald Trump meme in the doc The Cleaners

And in a bizarre juxtaposition of our self-expression on this problematic 21st Century medium and the means used to suppress it, we meet Illma Gore, the L.A. artist who created a viral graphic of Donald Trump, nude with a micro-penis. And we meet the smallish Filipina woman who deleted it, a young, religious individual who wanted to quit her job (with a third party company hired by Facebook) on the first day, and who now sees it as “protecting people from sin.

“It says he is not a strong leader, that’s why his penis is small,” the “cleaner” says. “It degrades Donald Trump’s personality, so it must be deleted.”

Like any Third World factory job, hers is tenuous. If her decision is overturned on appeal, it is considered a “mistake.” Three mistakes in a month, we’re told, and you lose your job.

German directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck pull off a pretty slick segue between these “digital scavengers” and the bigger geopolitical concerns that have arisen surrounding social media.

We meet a male censor who turns out to be a fan of Philippines strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, via his favourite girl group, Mocha Girls (who campaign actively for the leader and deride the media). That partial reveal of the censor’s politics leads to Facebook’s bigger ethical transgression – its willingness to self-censor, or turn a blind eye as needed, to preserve its presence in places like Turkey, Myanmar and, yes, the Philippines.

In Myanmar, that means leaving in anti-Rohingya hate posts in a country where Facebook is virtually the only source of “news” for many, contributing to a humanitarian crisis that has seen a million of the persecuted minority leave the country.

In Turkey, it means no criticism of President Recip Erdogan is allowed, no footage of the Turkish flag being burned and no map representation of “Kurdistan.”

The Cleaners does not strictly target Facebook. It returns from time to time to the 2017 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism – an investigation that, among other things, sought to define the role Russian use of social media in disrupting the 2016 U.S. election. Reps for Facebook, Twitter and Google testified together. And as a group, their monitoring seemed to vary from the heavyhanded (Facebook) to the almost non-existent (Google).

But it becomes clear after a while that Facebook remains the platform of choice worldwide, for ordinary citizens as well as terrorists, child pornographers and would-be suicides. (We learn that at least one of the Filipino cleaners, whose speciality was censoring self-harm videos, went on to commit suicide himself).

The issues in The Cleaners are many – ranging from whether censorship is actually harmful, historically (a rep from an NGO monitoring the Syrian Civil War complains about having to race to save images of atrocities before they’re erased) to whether our very ability to function as a democracy is undermined by everyone having their own "truth," and the ability to surround themselves strictly with views that support that worldview.

The Cleaners is a doc of remarkable access and a feast for thought. 

The Cleaners. Directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. Opens Friday, June 22 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.