Spotlight on online content moderation at UNESCO screening of “The Cleaners”


As a side-event to the Internet Governance Forum, UNESCO, together with the UN Regional Information Centre, organized on 13 November a screening of the award-wining documentary “The Cleaners”.  The screening was followed by a discussion with the film directors and two experts.

“The Cleaners” is a documentary feature film by German directors Moritz Riesewick and Hans Block and takes an in-depth look at the personal and systemic aspects of ‘content moderation’.

The film focuses on the stress of content moderators who are employed by outsourced companies. The moderators have to make major editorial choices on a daily basis on what is appropriate or not to appear on social media platforms. This process involves viewing some 25,000 images a day, many of them violent or disturbing, and some critical of particular governments.  

The companies employing the moderators are based in The Philippines, and are contracted by international internet companies which host user content on social media and/or index content so it can be found via Internet searches.

Following the screening, the two film directors were joined in a panel discussion by Lisa Garcia, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives, and Guy Berger, Director of UNESCO’s Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development. Saorla McCabe, Programme Specialist in UNESCO’s Section for Freedom of Expression, moderated the discussion.

When asked what an alternative to the current practice could look like, Moritz Riesewick called for a decentralization and democratization of social media. According to the film director, “we need to question the idea that a community of two billion people is in the hands of a profit-oriented company”.

Lisa Garcia, who is herself based in the Philippines, pointed out the risk of psychological trauma for content moderators from repeated exposure to graphic images. She also warned against the potential impact of content moderation on democracy, with the risk of it deleting dissenting voices.

Guy Berger underlined the limits of a content moderation practice that is based on a binary DELETE/IGNORE approach, and he criticized the stress involved for individuals who are organized to make tough decisions in isolation. He emphasized the need to ensure that content moderation is fully aligned with international human rights standards which require that any limits on expression should be lawful, necessary, proportionate and in line with legitimate purpose.

“We also need Media and Information Literacy, so citizens can grasp the meaning of human rights and limitations, and their own duties in relation to content,” said Berger. “This is especially important given the rise of direct social messaging outside of public platforms, and where communication moderation does not come into the picture”.

The publication of community standards by social media companies was described by panelists as a positive step towards ensuring greater transparency. The speakers agreed, however, that the development of such standards by Internet companies should be done following a more inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach.

“The Cleaners” has won several awards and was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. The Internet Governance Forum, which took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris from 12 to 14 November, brought together over 3000 participants to debate the latest developments in the field of Internet governance in more than 150 sessions.