Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 4:43 pm 
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Social media are evil, is the true message of this little film

This documentary is more than it appears but much less than it should be. It's overburdened at only 85 minutes run-time. It has too much material to deal with, material that is new, complicated, and explosive. It starts out as "A look at the shadowy underworld of the Internet where questionable content is removed," as one summary states. This means the low-level employees, thousands, it is said, in the Philippines whose job is to "clean" the Internet, to view thousands of images that might be objectionable for people to look at and, on viewing them, to choose to allow or delete them. Actually the details of this work aren't really clear, and we don't get to see samples, but as- Nick Allen, Roger says in his review of this film, these "Cleaners" and this process are in themselves a complex subject that can't fully be dealt with in this film. This subject involves the plight of these employees whose work could be psychologically damaging. It also involves the way in which their decisions must be arbitrary, and in which they might not be able to judge taste or legality for viewers or users of other countries than their own country, the Philippines, and its culture. They make these decisions, incidentally, in a country governed by an insane leader known for his human rights violations.

But the film goes on to more important issues, which it can only begin to touch on. Primary among these is the pernicious effect of the social media, which so many users look upon as a boon. Google, Twitter, and Facebook - created in California by young white males - allow other countries like Turkey freely to censor what appears on social media in their regions. At the same time they allow the free flow of the most heinous material - misinformation, disinformation, hate. A prime example of that, cited in some small detail in the film, is the way Facebook has been used in Myanmar (former Burma) to foment hatred against the world's most oppressed minority, the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas who for centuries have lived in the Buddhist-majority country.

That's one example. On a wider scale, as a journalistic spokesman says earlier in the film, the social media have been creating the medium in which flows the politics that has produced Brexit and Trump - and no doubt the current general shift to the right and toward hate in world politics since Brexit and Trump. The "Cleaners" are not, in any political sense, cleaning, and they are certainly not clarifying. They are not filtering out false political claims or stupidity and hate, as the traditional world of good journalism we grew up with used to do. Nor are the powers that be in Silicon Valley doing so. Hate is good for business, it turns out. Nothing gets more hits in Myanmar than a vile attack on the Rohingyas.

A number of former employees of Google and Twitter appear as talking heads here expressing degrees of discomfort with what they did when in the fold and how the social media are operating now. Of course Mark Zuckerberg is in trouble for Facebook's lack of control of its myriad content. These things are Pandora's Boxes that have enveloped the world. Surely it would be idiotic for anybody now to say that Twitter, Google, or Facebook are forces for good in the world. They represent a marketplace that lacks the old checks and balances that kept discourse reasonable. Facebook is a major vehicle for the invasion of privacy. Good luck, Facebook users.

This is important material. But it's material for numerous documentary films, not one short one. The effect of The Cleaners is to give one the jitters. The material it only touches on is hard to pin down. It may leave you feeling like the unfortunate Filipino Internet filterers it starts out with, some of whom have committed suicide. This is a start, but we deserve better.

Having become convinced that an Apple cellphone salesman was a messianic guru making the world a better place, presumably it is easy for the public to start thinking a Harvard dropout who became an instant billionaire is a savior too. It is the opposite. The world of computers and the Internet has opened up humankind to vast stores of information - and vast new possibilities for stupidity and harm.

The Cleaners, 88 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018; also Rotterdam, DOX, and Hot Docs. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Sunday, April 8, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. at Creativity Theater
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. at Victoria Theatre
Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at BAMPFA

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