Factory-farmed likes rely on a global hierarchy that determines whose feelings count as real
WHAT'S the value of the Facebook like? Midway through American director Garrett Bradley’s nine-minute documentary, Like (2016), a scraggly, worn-faced Bangladeshi man asks this question — one that’s typically uttered by academics or social media strategists. Released at the end of March by Field of Vision, First Look Media’s documentary arm, Like concerns the cottage industry of click farms in Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka. Flush with cash, this pay-per-like market employs a $200-million-a-year silent workforce, where a customer can pay $50 for at least a thousand likes per post. Its workers, like the man asking the question, receive a meager monthly stipend in exchange for the labor, the emotionally deadening task of manually clicking Facebook’s like button over and over again for hours.
Bradley’s anonymous narrator attributes the existence of this industry to Bangladesh’s economic squalor, particularly among a class of recent young male college graduates. These graduates have lofty aims of becoming doctors or engineers or government employees. But the density of the country’s 156-million-strong population makes for a difficult job market. What becomes of the aspiring engineers or doctors who can’t make it in their desired field? They land in information-technology jobs, and some of those jobs happen to be on click farms.
It’s not difficult to understand why First Look would fund a documentary like this. By focusing on the Facebook like, Bradley’s documentary can take on the digital economy’s grimy human underbelly in the global south along with the complicity of Western consumers. This all has the DNA of some meaty, viral longread. In the days following the film’s release, I couldn’t help but marvel at how uncritically effusive cheerleaders for the film were. But as someone who was born into a Bengali family, its deficiencies were glaring to me.
There’s no way a Bengali person could have directed this, I thought, for Bradley doesn’t seem terribly interested in her subjects’ experiences or understanding of this industry beyond their misery. We very briefly meet Jewel A Rob, a man who uses click-farming to support himself while he pursues his artistic passions, but this is the closest we get to understanding these workers’ choices to join this line of work. Mostly, she fills her frames with shots of dark, sparse offices and nameless Bangladeshi men who stare pathologically into glowing computer screens. Bradley treats her subjects more like specimens who exist for the Western viewer’s emotional gratification — to generate an ephemeral moment of satisfaction at having felt sympathy for this exploited labor force.
This aesthetic relies on a still-colonial hierarchy of concern that has played out before when it comes to Bangladesh. Bradley’s documentary recalls the case of Maks, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi American who, in March 2014, posed topless for a American Apparel ad with the phrase Made in Bangladesh plastered across her breasts. The retailer released this ad just months after Dhaka’s twin disasters of the 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory fire and the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, which together left 1,300 people dead.
The reaction to American Apparel’s ad was swift and righteous, particularly from Bengali writers. “This ad has little to do with the woman in front of us,” Bangladeshi-American writer Tanwi Nandini Islam wrote in Elle, “and everything to do with the Bangladeshi female garment worker who remains invisible.” It was easy, as Islam implied, for an unsuspecting viewer to look at this photo and imagine that Maks escaped a fate she was born into — premature death at the hands of cruddy sweatshop infrastructure that seems endemic to the country — while losing sight of the women who actually live out that fate.
In both Bradley’s film and American Apparel’s ad, the righteousness of directing moral outrage at the Western corporations who dole out horror to exploited Bangladeshi workers is what animates the proceedings. Yet something feels tonally askew: The toiling Bangladeshi mass never comes into sharp enough focus to believe that this is for their benefit. In an interview Bradley gave to The Intercept shortly after the film’s release, she agreed that the film was a mere “kernel, a quick proof of what exists,” rather than an exhaustive probe. Still, it’s impossible for me not to wonder whether Bradley’s intentions are rooted in something else. What’s the value of a Bangladeshi life to American like Bradley? Why does she try to shame Western audiences with a fantasy of an exploited Bangladeshi worker when she doesn’t seem to care much about Bangladeshis as people in the first place?
WHAT Bradley’s exposing isn’t exactly new. In August 2013, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 aired Dispatches: Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans, an hour-long documentary on click farms in Dhaka. One click-farm boss, this documentary found, had dubbed himself the King of Facebook for his ability to manage a team of workers who could generate likes numbering in the tens of thousands.
Predictably, the Guardian framed this phenomenon as one “eroding user confidence in what had looked like an objective measure of social online approval,” couching it in terms of Western consumers’ well-being before wondering how the disclosures “could hurt Facebook.” Only paragraphs later does it remind us that the labor is deadening for the workers, exhausting them from frenetic days and occasional nights sat in front of screens in “dingy” rooms, clicking endlessly.
The Guardian’s coverage of the Dispatches documentary was soon appended with an unperturbed response from Facebook, in which they professed that they’d been reduced to a primarily reactive position to curtail these click farms:
If you run a Facebook page and someone offers you a boost in your fan count in return for money, our advice is to walk away — not least because it is against our rules and there is a good chance those likes will be deleted by our automatic systems.
Months later, an AP investigation conducted across Dhaka and Jakarta did more to illuminate the massive scope of the click-farm industry and tech companies’ struggle to contain it. Dhaka, a city of seven million, was dubbed “an international hub for click farms,” filled with social media promotion firms that paid workers to click manually on social media pages. The city generated the majority of likes for such pages as that of soccer player Lionel Messi, Facebook’s own security page, and Google’s Facebook page. The CEO of one Dhaka-based company argued that these activities weren’t fraudulent, since these likes weren’t coming from bots but from real people. The distinction is crucial: There’s soul behind the spam; these workers aren’t mere automatons.
You might gather, from the way the like is often written about in solely Western contexts, that the act of liking has a single meaning no matter who doles it out — bot or sentient being, click farmer in Dhaka or dude in Mountain View. Consider the origins of Facebook’s like button itself, after all: universality. The like began as an “awesome” button, but the company decided that the language of a like translated across all cultural vocabularies in a way that “awesome” didn’t. This product decision had an earnest premise: Likes were supposed to be a form of currency that anyone, anywhere in the world, could understand and deploy with equal meaning. There’s plenty of reasons why a consumer would hit that button — a sense of social obligation, a desire to share affirmation, ambivalence. A broad spectrum of emotions may be contained in that click, but the like moniker strips out any particular intensity, flattening those emotions into a single, equivalent token.
It is the same univocality of this transaction that makes it ripe for substitution by hired workers. And the Facebook interface’s neutralizing effect makes it easy for the click farmers to perform the telepresent emotional labor, because the likes of click farmers will appear identical to the likes of those who aren’t being paid to do it. So if there’s no particular concern for Bangladeshi lives, where does the worry about click farms come from?
Undergirding the seeming likeness between an “organic” and a farmed like is a web of global economic disparities. Likes are supposed to be something that anyone can use with equal meaning, but only Bangladeshi likes are cheap enough to be for sale. At first glance, Bradley’s documentary confirms the most cynical reading of Facebook’s like economy: the uninterested, disconnected liking of click farmers mirrors the disengaged, empty liking of Western, supposedly good-faith users. Whether a click farmer or an ordinary user, the engagement is limited to milliseconds and the likes stem from the compulsion to participate in this emotional economy.
There are much higher stakes at play for a click farmer in Dhaka than for someone outside that labor force. The click farmer’s livelihood depends upon this industrial-scale emoting, emptying his life for the benefit of Lionel Messi’s fan page. Bangladeshi workers don’t partake in Facebook’s “equal” form of participation, even if the company dreams of offering such parity across the globe. These click farmers show that the tokens of this social participation are hollow. But paradoxically, the authenticity of Western likes is bolstered by these exposés of the factory-grown affect as mere proxies for Western feelings, because it proves that their own are freely chosen and therefore more real.
It’s a skewed economy in which Bangladeshi workers forever remain on the other side of the screen, living through some dead-end form of hell, while Western consumers writ large enjoy a world that continues to operate along colonial lines. Western feelings are privileged as “real” and authentic at the expense of Bangladeshi men’s feelings, which are produced for the sale, consumption, and ultimate gratification of Western consumers. Those users maintain an advantaged position in this hierarchy, with emotions that Facebook can monetize.
Herein lies the problem with Bradley’s documentary: It relies on the same hierarchy that this cottage industry reproduces across the globe. In the click farm economy, Western clients sustain an archaic power dynamic. Bangladeshi workers serve as proxy emoters for the Western users who really matter. But Bradley’s playing the same game. She doesn’t seem to much care about the Bangladeshi workers as people; she uses them as unspecified emotional props, as if they should exist only to allow Westerners to measure their own feelings on the futility of liking on Facebook. That these men have feelings themselves is effaced.
Bradley’s aesthetic choices echo this relationship between the Western consumer and the Bangladeshi worker. She routinely obfuscates her subjects’ faces behind computer screens, for one. Bradley could’ve offset the colonial relationship that’s latent in this spectatorship — perhaps by anchoring the individual portraits of these workers in more specificity, therefore offering us a way of looking at this Bangladeshi workforce as more than just some congealed, lumpen mass.
What results from Bradley’s film, though, is more of a social awareness campaign in which we flatter our given notions of what these men are, and then pity them, without the added discomfort of actually getting to know who they really are or why. For Bradley, along with her audience sitting in the West, it doesn’t quite matter who the Bangladeshi is as a person as long as he accomplishes the assigned task — to do the emotional work necessary for the Western consumer to be moved, and to have that consumer’s beliefs stroked rather than complicated.
Consider for a second the fact that Bangladesh’s history is barely taught in American schools. Had my parents not lived through the Bangladesh Liberation War themselves, I would never have known much about the conflict. A firm sense of Bangladesh’s complex history hasn’t taken hold in the Western imagination, and Bradley’s documentary capitalizes on this ignorance. Her images traffic in gauzy atmospherics, trying to capture silent horrors against the backdrop of Dhaka’s bustling urban heart. A few shots offer a bridge to an understanding of the people she’s profiling, but she doesn’t cross it: to link between scenes, her camera lingers with anthropological curiosity on the face of a morose young boy, clasping his elder on the back of a Vespa as they weave through the roads of Dhaka. On occasion, you can Bradley’s subjects speak whispers of Bengali, and if you can understand them, you want to hear more of them in their own words.