How do we stop social media from promoting violence, hatred and pain? Think of a solution, and Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block’s “The Cleaners,” a neon-lit documentary shot like a noir thriller, explains why that fix would fail. The digital janitors of the title are anonymous men and women in Manila who screen 25,000 Facebook posts a day and decide what to delete. Sounds obvious: no nudity, no dead children. But what if it’s a naked painting of President Trump, or a photo of a Libyan refugee child who drowned crossing the Mediterranean?
The censors we meet deleted both, and as the film ping-pongs from tricky problems to unsatisfying resolutions, the need for someone to save the internet confronts the impossibility of giving anyone censorship power over mighty media outlets. “The Cleaners” covers a lot of shaky ground without mapping much we don’t already know. The sinister tone it sets early on, with anonymous employees hiding behind monitors, flattens out into petrified despair. Yet, the doc is a thorough record of how our obsessive online culture has sunk to the low point it’s at today. Don’t expect any idea how to claw back out.
Riesewieck and Block remind us that the internet is made of individuals. Critics attack Facebook and Twitter as powerful monoliths, or single out figureheads Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. But even if the companies support sanitizing posts, each choice comes down to a single person making a judgement call, often enough 7,000 miles away from where the item was posted. Their two-second decision to ignore or delete ripples across the web, affecting lives from Myanmar to Istanbul. When “The Cleaners” visits these places to ask local journalists how much control Facebook has over their citizens, the answer is a lot—and fatally. The censors aren’t allowed to share their names, and a few appear only as anxious words on a screen. But they have specialities — child pornography, terrorism, self-harm videos — and their own biases.
The devout Catholic who sees her job as a battle against sin deletes all nudity and goes to sleep dreaming about penises. Riesewieck and Block cut to a shot of Jesus on a cross to imply that this work, which taught her new words like “tits” and “butt plug,” is her holy sacrifice. The patriot who compliments Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug campaign, which murdered thousands of civilians before the government stopped keeping count, insists, “Just like our president is doing everything he can to keep the Philippines safe, I’m doing the same in my job.” At night, he clocks out to watch nude model-turned-pop star Mocha Uson dance at a club. Manila reporter Ed Lingao notes that Uson, a friend of Duterte, posts disinformation supporting the president’s drug war to her 4 million Facebook followers. How can we trust this censor to straighten out Facebook when he’s tangled up himself?
“The Cleaners” could — and probably should — have centered its story on one or two employees, any of whom capture the contradictions of a tech company outsourcing its conscience. Instead, the collected stories play like a greatest hits of trauma: the father who wasn’t allowed to shut off the live stream of a suicidal boy until he watched him die, the braces-wearing girl who describes a scene of pedophilia.
We don’t see these videos. Riesewieck and Block zoom in on the faces watching the screen, eyes flicking back and forth, numbed expressions hinting at how many horrors they’ve already witnessed. Sighs one, “I’ve seen hundreds of beheadings.” Sometimes over the score, an unnerving mix of electronic hums, ominous bells and discordant violins, we hear screams.
These workers deserve our empathy. Yet, when Riesewieck and Block follow them home, lingering over footage of fish guts and garbage dumps, the film also seems to question what gives these poor people in this poor country the right to rule the global conversation. It’s an uncomfortable question — so uncomfortable that the directors won’t ask it straight out, instead using footage of churches and Duterte complimenting Hitler to remind us that Facebook has handed its reigns to a country that’s 94% Christian and accepting of state media blackouts. Are these the right people to, say, decide whether a Muslim preacher is sharing his faith or inciting terrorism? Is anyone?
For context, “The Cleaners” leaves these shadowy cubicles to meet the users they affect. In California, a liberal political artist and a right-wing propagandist upload files that get removed. Meanwhile, in London, a human rights activist hastily downloads Syrian citizen journalists’ videos of air strikes before that living history is deleted. And in Bangladesh, a blogger explains how Facebook has fueled the Rohingya genocide. “If you post anything against the Rohingya, you will be popular,” he says, viral videos incubating an epidemic of hatred.
Riesewieck and Block interview executives from Facebook and Google who say all the right things about wanting to heal the web. The unanswered question is how — clearly not by relying on the labor of men and women in Manila. An inclusion of Donald Trump bragging, “If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t be able to get the word out. I probably wouldn’t be standing here,” feels like a cheap way to score points, especially when the film argues that the problem isn’t just one election, but rather what that election revealed about the splintering of a shared reality when information is curated by outrage and groupthink.
“The Cleaners” has the effect of scanning three dozen grim tweets. There’s not much to latch onto besides an overwhelming sense of helplessness; like the internet itself, it’s crowded with opinions but lacking in intimacy. Today’s historians should bury this documentary in a time capsule to explain 2018 to the future species who will hopefully do a better job running the planet.
Ultimately, the sinister lighting and chilling score distract from the filmmakers’ message. This isn’t a story where villains lurk in the darkness. It’s a nightmare of hands-off neutrality, where engineers in tidy white offices ask strangers they’ve never met to mop up their mess.