Image result for The low-paid workers cleaning up the worst horrors of the internet

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Is there any way to stop the spread of terrorist material on the internet? It’s a question that many have asked in recent years, as groups such as Isis have pumped out sickening images of beheadings and torture on social media platforms. This month the European Commission tried to offer an answer: it demanded that companies such as Google and Facebook take down any terrorism-related content within an hour of it being reported. “Hooray!” most FT readers might think. After all, one reason why Isis and others started creating these horrifying images is that they know how easily they can proliferate, giving terrorists a media voice out of all proportion to their actual influence. As Rick Stengel, a former US state department official has pointed out, only about 5 per cent of the content Isis has created has been in English. However, it has packed a formidable global punch precisely because it has been so widely shared. The content is also hard to remove. But as the European Commission starts, belatedly, on this crackdown, it raises the question of who exactly is going to monitor these social media feeds and decide what should (or should not) be deleted? This is not an issue most of us think about. Little wonder. Our 21st-century lives are built on all manner of seemingly sophisticated processes that produce waste, of the physical and cyber kind. Yet it is very easy to ignore the question of who cleans up that mess, whether in a sewer, a street or in cyberspace. In recent weeks, I have been haunted by this question of cyber mess, due to a fascinating documentary called The Cleaners, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. This movie, which looks at how Facebook removes offensive material on its sites, goes undercover to interview a group of IT workers who are paid to scan content on monitors, taking down anything that breaks decency rules, such as terrorist posts. As documentaries go, The Cleaners is not perfect. As well as a lot of irritatingly spooky music, the film leaves some key questions unanswered. But it explores a fascinating, and disconcerting, topic. It illustrates a point that very few western internet users know about, namely that the people who are actually “cleaning” Facebook posts do not usually sit in Silicon Valley or a Brussels bureaucracy; instead, many are found in places such as Manila in the Philippines. Commercially, it makes sense for Silicon Valley to outsource these “cleaning” jobs to Asia, since IT workers there tend to be cheaper. There is also an element of expediency. Doing so keeps it out of the western public eye even if, inevitably, it can also create some hiccups. The workers sometimes struggle to understand the cultural nuances of the material they are scanning. Sometimes they delete western artistic nudes (because they confuse it for pornography) or human-rights videos from Syria (because they show violence). However, as the film tracks a collection of these workers, who spend many hours in grim cubicles watching the depravity that exists on the internet, it raises another, far more important issue: the toll this process takes on the workers themselves. As the film shows, some of them rely on their religious faith to cope with the endless horrors they monitor online, while others try to remain detached. But nobody can pretend that this is an easy job or something most of us would ever agree to do. This pattern of outsourced “cleaning” also creates a moral question: is there a better way to handle this process? Facebook says it is now trying to provide more support for its “cleaners”, in the Philippines and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Google has taken a slightly different tack, by building extensive operations to monitor the internet in developed markets, such as Ireland, alongside those in the developing world. But what no politician — or Silicon Valley whiz-kid — would ever dare say in public is that there is probably no easy (or cheap) way to “clean” the internet. Even if artificial intelligence is deployed, judging what is (or is not) indecent will always require some human input. And the more that terrorist groups (such as Isis) churn out their material, and government bodies (such as the European Commission) try to crack down, the more challenging this “cleaning” process will be. Meanwhile, the next time you log into a social media account, spare a thought for this hidden world of the “cleaners”. Although cyberspace might be intangible, there are hidden armies of humans involved. They deserve a spotlight — precisely because they do a job most of us hate to even think about.