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The Cleaners project

Related priority: A new push for European democracy


Who keeps social media clean?

Millions of posts are made on Facebook every minute, alongside hundreds of thousands of Twitter tweets and hours of YouTube video uploads. But they don’t all stay there. So, who decides what to take down? And what are the criteria?

First-time documentary filmmakers, Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block tackle these issues in their fascinating film, The Cleaners, backed with funding from the European Commission’s Creative Europe programme. Supporting the European Commission’s new push for democracy, the film raises important questions on where to place the fine line between disinformation, hate speech and the right to freedom of expression.

The idea for The Cleaners arose in 2013 when the directors saw a news item about a video of child abuse that was shared on Facebook 4,000 times before it was taken down.

Assuming the platform was using an algorithm, they were surprised to discover that human ‘content moderators’ were responsible, poring over hours of often disturbing images every day, making the binary choice to “ignore” or “delete”. And these workers were not in Silicon Valley but 11,000 km away in Manila (Philippines).

The film takes us on a journey into a neon-lit world, shrouded in secrecy. We discover that these ‘cleaners’ believe they are working for the common good – but many are traumatised by the shocking images they have seen. And the criteria they use are often based on arbitrary guidance from the owners of digital platforms, mixed with their own personal views.

The Cleaners raises other, far-reaching questions about the very foundations of a free society. By effectively allowing social media owners to decide what we can and cannot view, says the film, “the danger is that we might lose democracy because we are willing to give it up”.


The young Filipinos sitting in front of a screen thousands of miles away have little knowledge of the subjects they are moderating. But they could unwittingly be dictating what ends up on the front page of the Guardian or the New York Times.

Moritz Riesewieckco-director of The Cleaners, World Policy Magazine, July 5, 2018.