Anyone who’s been online for more than 15 minutes has some type of horror story. For most of us, the internet at its worst means another one of our strange cousin’s Kanye-style Facebook rants, or thirsty creepers trying to slide up in our DMs. However, the internet is darker and more dangerous than we want to admit. Co-directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s documentary, The Cleaners, looks at the internet’s growing power and influence over society, and profiles the people fighting to hold it in check.
The film’s cleaners are online moderators, employed to keep “filth” and “atrocious” acts off the internet. They tend to come from the Philippines, where citizens have the required English skills and also work for low pay rates. Each shift they go online and sort through upwards of 20,000 links to decide whether they violate ethical codes. It sounds simple enough, but the job puts people through the ringer, leaving shell-shocked husks in their place; we hear about one stressed-out moderator who committed suicide. These cleaners speak with Block and Riesewieck, sharing how it feels to look at child porn and bestiality hour after hour, day after day.
The Cleaners’ content makes it a tough watch. It presents ruthless beatings, stories of child murder, and the image of the victim of a beheading. If you’re sensitive to brutality, The Cleaners’ content will haunt you for a long time. Even if you’re not usually rattled by violence, expect the movie’s images to shock you out of your apathy — like with the “don’t eat animals” videos shown at Morrissey concerts. If you’re fine with all that, The Cleaners sparks a fascinating discussion about the internet’s unchecked power, and the need for accountability.