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The Cleaners

R16: Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Suicide & Graphic Physical Harm

Spoiler alert

This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this movie.

About the film

The Cleaners is a feature length documentary that examines issues relating to censorship and free speech on social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The ‘Cleaners’ are content moderators - all based in the Philippines - responsible for content moderating some of the largest social media platforms in the world. Through a series of interviews, the documentary examines their lives, the cultural values that shape their decision making, and the psychological impact of sifting through thousands of images and videos of difficult material, every day. It also examines the nature of social media itself. By interviewing journalists, free speech advocates, and former employees of social media organisations the documentary offers a macro perspective on how the tech companies that own the platforms are so eager to grow and expand that they fail to recognise the ways their products are fomenting hate and violence with devastating results across the globe.

The Cleaners

Date registered: 13/06/2018

Classification criteria: Sex

The moderators discuss in detail the kind of sexual imagery and content they must deal with, from images of child sexual abuse, to footage of explicit sex. Some imagery of sexualised nudity is depicted, and one of the moderators visits a sex shop, looking at sex toys. They speak of sex in a frank, matter-of-fact manner, and how their job impacts their own attitudes.

A person looks out of a window. They are silhouetted against the cityscape of Manila at night.

Classification criteria: Horror, crime, cruelty and violence

There is frank discussion and depiction of real life violence and war atrocities, in the form of still images and videos that depict torture, serious physical harm, significant cruelty and in some places, death. An infamous image from Abu Ghraib Prison of a US soldier and his dog terrorising a kneeling prisoner is incorrectly interpreted by a content moderator as an Islamic State militant terrorising a captive. The strongest image shown in the documentary depicts a decapitated head smeared with blood placed on the back of the body it has come from. A moderator says she has watched hundreds of beheadings and describes in detail how the head has been severed with a kitchen knife as the cuts along the neck are jagged. The image and the commentary are highly disturbing. The documentary also contains a heartbreaking and harrowing description of sexual and racial violence from a Rohingya woman in a Bangladesh refugee camp. Extensive scars are seen on her face, arms and legs. An activist describes how hate speech posted on Facebook promoted hostility against the Rohingya leading to atrocities such as that described by the woman.

Self-harm is dealt with in a sequence that illustrates the strong religiosity in the Philippines where two men are shown recreating the crucifixion of Christ during Good Friday commemorations. The men choose to have their hands nailed to crosses that are hoisted up. It is clear from their faces that they are in agony as they are suspended vertically. The documentary also contains references to suicide. A moderator describes having to view a live stream of a person committing suicide by hanging. He was unable to block the feed as the person had not violated any guidelines until he hanged himself. He is clearly disturbed by what he experienced. Text on the screen describes a moderator specialising in suicide imagery committing suicide themselves. The victim’s requests for a transfer were ignored by their supervisor.

A man sits in a darkened office. The light from a computer screen illuminates his face

Decision summary

The Cleaners is a riveting documentary that examines the complex balance between responsible censorship and freedom of speech on social media platforms. It has significant educational, cultural and social merit. Its purpose is to highlight how poorly equipped moderators and large tech companies can strongly influence democracy, transparency and debate around the world based on a set of rigid guidelines and their own personal and corporate agendas. Although all the material in the documentary is well contextualised, the graphic imagery of death, cruelty and violence, and the challenging topics, in particular sexual violence and suicide, are likely to be highly disturbing to audiences of any age. While older teenagers and adults are likely to have the experience and maturity to understand that the documentary is an insightful examination of the social media phenomenon and the impact it has on global discourse, younger viewers are in the process of forming their view of the world and the content is likely to be have a negative impact on their development. However, a restriction to adults would be unreasonable given the documentary’s intended purpose and its merit. Taking into account the right to freedom of expression as stated in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the least restrictive classification that can be applied in order to prevent injury to the public good is R16.

Contact the Information Unit if you require further information on a classification decision.

R16 label
R16: Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Suicide & Graphic Physical Harm