TV review: The Internet’s Dirties Secret, and Mums Make Porn

05 April 2019

BBC/Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion

A content moderator in The Internet’s Dirtiest Secret: The cleaners — Storyville (BBC1, 19 March)

A content moderator in The Internet’s Dirtiest Secret: The cleaners — Storyville (BBC1, 19 March)

IF YOU think that television is awful, just consider the internet. Why don’t they sort it out and remove the sickening, violent, and disgusting material that is available to everyone, however young, gullible, or suggestible? The Internet’s Dirtiest Secret: The cleaners — Storyville (BBC4, 19 March) showed us that, depressingly, they already do — up to a point.

This programme was distressing on a whole range of levels: first, the outrage of who is given the task and under what conditions. The material to be examined is too upsetting for sensitive Western eyes, in the nations that make the real profits: it is hidden from us, and outsourced to the Philippines. For a pittance, “content moderators” each have to assess no fewer than 25,000 Facebook, Google, and Twitter posts a day. In a split second, they must decide whether material is to be deleted or broadcast; so the criteria are necessarily broad and morally simplistic.

Because child nudity is wrong, Kim Phuc running naked from napalm bombing cannot be viewed. Violence seems to be more easily tolerated: they pass vile images of prisoners being tortured.

The standards seem politically skewed: right-wing material is generally tolerated, but left-leaning political comment is routinely blocked. And the Filippino context also affects judgement, apparently biased towards the authoritarian and prudish and away from anything radical and challenging.

What damage is being done to the people who do this work for us? What must be the effect of watching, as one man told us, hundreds of beheadings and thousands of images of child pornography? Censorship versus free expression is one of the oldest moral problems that we wrestle with: using any social medium props up one side of this argument, whether we choose to know it or not.

Disgust with the internet fuels the Channel 4 series Mums Make Porn (Wednesdays). Appalled at the torrent of pornography that their children seem to know all about, five mothers determine that what is needed is material that is explicit enough to be compelling and arousing, but is loving, consensual, and equal — and set out to make such a film themselves.

As they dig deeper into the medium, they are appalled at how extreme it is, how violent, and how male-dominated, with what I assume to be somewhat unusual physical attributes and acts presented as standard. Surprisingly, they find themselves liking the genre’s performers and directors whom they encounter.

But one mother, Jane, who is introduced as a devout Christian, becomes unhappy with the whole project, realising that her imagined film of loving, committed sexual activity would not make a film that anyone would watch. She does something so counter-cultural that I’m surprised that it wasn’t redacted: she decides to leave the experiment after consulting her priest and praying. I don’t see it catching on.

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