Here’s a programme to make you heartsick. Someone has to trawl through images and videos online to ensure that vile content doesn’t remain on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Google. I’d always assumed that that someone would be sitting comfortably in Silicon Valley, maybe even in HQ. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg himself would pop by with a doughnut. But just as with so many disgusting clean-up jobs, the west outsources it to less prosperous countries, where tens of thousands of moderators work in the shadows.
The Internet’s Dirtiest Secrets: The Cleaners introduces us to a handful based in Manila, and it’s a slow descent into the murky depths of the human mind. Artfully shot pale faces with heavy eyes are illuminated by the flicker of electronic screens, as they intone: “Ignore. Ignore. Delete. Ignore.” An anonymous informant explains that moderators are expected to assess 25,000 images each day. They are mostly proud and upbeat about the job, at least to begin with.
They must learn about sex toys, as well as the flags and slogans of the 37 terrorist organisations listed by the UN. One woman explains that at first she thought butt-plugs must be something to do with kitchen sinks. After a while in the job, “I would dream about different kinds of penises: long, short, white, black, fat . . . ” It became “a guilty pleasure” — “I enjoyed what I saw.” The moral conundrums start small, with an artist’s image of a nude, minutely endowed Donald Trump that went viral before being excised. But one moderator can’t banish from their mind the video of a six-year-old performing a sex act in a cubicle.
“I’ve seen hundreds of beheadings,” another says calmly, now so expert that they can tell just by looking at a severed head that “for this one they used a kitchen knife”.
The final section deals with the rampant spread of material used to stoke political violence and genocide. The need to remain operational in lucrative territories means that satirical images of Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be stamped out, while the Rohingya people of Myanmar are vilified and demonised. As the toll this clean-up work takes is made clear, the film-makers end with a clip of Zuckerberg burbling platitudes about changing the world “one connection at a time”, while a moderator’s voice intones: “Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.”
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