“The Cleaners,” Cleaned – Google’s YouTube Removes Trailer for Content Moderation Documentary, Citing “Shocking Content”

02_THE CLEANERS © gebrueder beetz filmproduktion KEY-800-800-450-450-crop-fill
A still from The Cleaners (2018), directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck


Today, news from France: it seems the French outlet of the Franco-German television channel ARTÉ (known as ARTE in Germany) has found itself on the wrong side of Google and YouTube’s opaque and mysterious content moderation policy for videos. The irony? The video that has been removed is a trailer that ARTÉ put together for its own broadcasting of the award-winning documentary film, The Cleaners (French title: Les nettoyeurs du Web).

In a post brought to my attention by Paris-based sociologist Antonio Casili, ARTÉ announced the takedown, and its reaction to it, on their own website.

I will provide an English translation following the French text, for non-speakers of French:

“Comme chaque semaine, ARTE avait décidé de fabriquer un petit film promotionnel – un trailer – à destination des réseaux sociaux, notamment Facebook et YouTube. Mais patatras ! Voilà que ce trailer – fabriqué à partir des images du documentaire – est à son tour censuré par Google, qui possède Youtube. Motif : il est porteur de “contenus choquants”, nous explique un email envoyé par adwords-noreply@google.com.

Est-ce un message automatique, le résultat d’un des 25 000 clics quotidiens des “petites mains” philippines ? Ou les GAFAs sont-ils particulièrement chatouilleux lorsqu’on regarde sous leurs jupes ? D’autant que, conscients de la délicatesse du sujet, nous avions déjà expurgé le trailer des images les plus choquantes. En d’autres termes, pratiqué l’autocensure.

Alors, que faire ?

Insister, argumenter n’aurait aucun effet. Remonter une nouvelle fois notre bande-annonce ? Nous nous y refusons. Renoncer à la publication ? En l’état nous n’avons pas le choix, elle ne passera pas. Boycotter les principaux réseaux sociaux mondiaux, pour qui nous ne représentons rien mais qui nous sont devenus indispensables ? Pas la peine d’y penser.

Ne nous reste qu’à exposer les faits – ce que nous faisons ici. Vous laisser juges et vous inviter à vous faire votre propre opinion en cliquant ici.”

My translation follows:

“Just as we do every week, [the Franco-German broadcaster] ARTE had decided to make a little promotional film – a trailer – destined for social media, in particular Facebook and YouTube. But hold on! The trailer  – created using images from the documentary -has been itself censored by Google, YouTube’s owner. Reason given? The trailer contains “shocking content,” as explained in an an email to us sent by adwords-noreply@google.com.

Is it an automatic message, the result of 25,000 clicks of Filipino workers’ “little hands?” Or are the Big Four tech firms particularly ticklish when we take a peak underneath their skirts? Especially since, aware of the delicate nature of the subject, we had already expunged the most shocking images from the trailer; in other words, undertook self-censorship.

So now what?

Insisting and arguing will have no effect. Once again try putting up our trailer? We refuse. Give up on publishing it? In this case, we don’t have a choice: the trailer won’t be allowed to stand. Boycott the major social media networks of the world for whom we represent nothing but which have become indispensable for all of us? Don’t bother even thinking of it.

The only thing left to do is to expose the facts – which is what we’re doing right now. We will let you be the judge and we invite you to leave your own opinion by clicking here.”

In summary, ARTÉ (France) has made a promotional trailer for its own broadcast of the Cleaners (both French and German ARTE are airing it now). They edited together their own trailer, not the official trailer from the production company, German documentary house Gebrüder Beetz productions, but their own – a pretty normal thing to do (American audiences, think of promos for films airing on PBS’s Independent Lens, as The Cleaners is set to do this fall).

ARTE reaches across Europe to provide cultural programming

YouTube (parent company: Google slash Alphabet) has, in turn, removed that trailer produced by ARTÉ, citing content that ostensibly violates its community standards on the grounds of being shocking. Let me say this again: this is a film about people who do the work taking down shocking content, that shows them taking down said shocking content and dealing with the emotional fallout, among other themes. This film shows them taking down shocking content on properties just like YouTube, and others like them.

You can’t make it up.

Senior reporter Davey Alba, on the tech beat for Buzzfeed, pointed out on Twitter that it looks like the decision came from the team responsible for “quality ratings” at the Google Ad Words product, which is a slightly different commercial content moderation context but remains nevertheless, and for all intents and purposes, commercial content moderation all the same. Alba herself has done in-depth reporting on this aspect of the CCM industry, which you can (and should) read here. Ultimately, though, this is all conjecture for those of us in the cheap seats, making our best guesses as to what the hell is going on behind the scenes and behind the screens at places like Google, but, more importantly, at the third-party outsourced firms in the “Global South” where work like this takes place on behalf of North American tech giants – my suspicion as to where this went down, and the origin point of the protagonists in the film The Cleaners in the first place. Who knows – it could have been poorly-paid contractors in the US who made the deletion. Whomever, and wherever the deletion was made, it’s possible that those reviewing the material had only thumbnails to look at and only seconds to respond. Such are the productivity metrics required by the work of adjudication on behalf of social media firms. Context is not only lost, it’s unwelcome, deemed unnecessary and is non-existent.

I was asked by a reporter earlier today if, in my estimation, the implication of this takedown was that it was a concerted political move by Google to censor content (oy, the mind reels at the recursion I’m creating in this post), or if it was more a sort of unconscious or accidental decision – poorly made and quickly executed, perhaps, as a function of the working conditions under which people doing CCM labor. Again – unveiling the conditions of the latter is in no small part the point of my work, and the point of the film.

Yet, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this is perhaps not even the compelling question: social media’s logic of opacity regarding the terms under which content moderation policies are developed and executed (including for and by whom), and overarching ideologies that inform them, make the answer a moot point. The error, itself, becomes political. And the political can be couched as error. The status quo here is inadequate, at best.

The Cleaners premiered at Sundance in January, and has been screened at festivals around the world. It has been in theatrical release in many global markets, and will come to the US on PBS this fall

Of course, as a friend just mentioned, “How many people would have seen the ARTE trailer if this hadn’t happened?” The answer: many fewer than would like to see it now. I suppose that kind of publicity likely could not have been bought by ARTE had it tried. Meanwhile, a number of reporters are on the case and we will likely know more (a response from YouTube and/or Google? The hosting of ARTÉ’s trailer elsewhere?) soon. Stay tuned: I’ll update this post as is warranted. In the meantime, the deletion is resonant of the removal of “the Terror of War” from the Facebook page of a Norwegian journalist in late 2016 – and the concomitant outrage when the removal was blamed, first, on AI and then on human moderators. Who will take the fall this time?

Wait and see.

(The Cleaners is a 2018 documentary film directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, and produced by Gebrüder Beetz filmproduktion, along with numerous global partners. I served as an adviser to the film and briefly appear in it. )

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