Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sundance ’18: The Cleaners

They are called “moderators,” but the net effect of their work has not made the world a more moderate place. These young underpaid workers specialize in flagging objectionable content from the internet, such as extreme pornography and incitements to violence. However, any real Free Speech advocate will argue one man’s hate speech is another man’s trenchant political analysis. Yet, the really consequential decisions regarding what to block and what to allow happens several hundred pay-grades above them. The state of the internet as a public forum is critically examined in Hans Block & Moritz Riesewieck’s documentary The Cleaners, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The major social networks, especially including Facebook, are sensitive about the word “censorship,” so they all outsource their content moderation to tech firms in the Philippines (cheap labor, high English fluency, and incidentally overwhelmingly Catholic and currently supportive of Generalissimo Duterte). One can argue overwhelmingly egregious images should be policed, but you have to wonder who would put their names to such vileness in the first place. Of course, the slope quickly gets slippery when violent or sexual imagery is incorporated into political commentary.

While anonymous moderators are flagging naked Trump cartoons, their client bosses are cutting deals to censor criticism of the increasingly Islamist Erdogan regime for Turkish IP addresses. Conversely, they allow genocidal hate speech directed at Burma’s Rohingya minority to continue unabated. Likewise, dubious fake news (approaching deliberate misinformation) peddled by Duterte’s supporters, including his high-profile cheerleader, Mocha Uson, a former pin-up model turned Spice Girls-esque pop-star, are allowed to flow freely.

There is a great deal of eye-opening and disturbing stuff in The Cleaners, but it is mostly anecdotal and often at odds with itself. Social networks should censor more in Burma (nobody calls it Myanmar, except maybe tech company staff attorneys) and the Philippines, but far less in China and Turkey. Essentially, Block & Riesewieck argue whenever a judgement call is needed, Facebook and YouTube have almost always gotten it wrong. Most people can be easily convinced of that (frankly, its like shooting fish in a barrel), but that doesn’t leave us much in terms of policy implications and action item takeaways.

Okay, so Facebook is evil. Now what? Granted, there is some interesting stuff in The Cleaners. Uson with her racy past and BFF relationship with Duterte cries out for her own, snarkier documentary. However, the film is too unfocused and contradictory to be an effective catalyst for reform. We wish this film was better than it is, but it is still pretty frightening. Despite its flaws, socially engaged viewers might want to check out The Cleaners anyway, when it screens this afternoon (1/27) in Park City, as part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.