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Netflix in hot water after rigging search results to not bring up a controversial film: Report

Internal records reportedly show how Netflix tried to weather a PR storm even as it occasionally runs into trouble in India.

Netflix quelled the promotion and search queries related to the film ‘Cuties’ at the time of its release to minimise public backlash, according to a report in The Verge. The online streaming platform pulled back Cuties’ recommendation from the “coming soon” and “popular searches” categories, the report added.

The streaming giant was found to have prevented the movie from coming up on search terms like cute, steamy, sexual titles, kids’ movies by tweaking its algorithms, The Verge’s investigation revealed.

Cuties’ synopsis on Netflix reads: “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.”

The controversy stems from the fact that the film includes scenes of the protagonist performing highly sexualised dance routines with a dance crew and shows the underage characters in other adult situations, according to Variety. Netflix did not help matters by crafting a misleading poster in its marketing communications for the film which triggered a public backlash.

The investigative piece reveals how Netflix is capable of manipulating its algorithm to weather a PR storm, casting aspersions on its claims of prioritising freedom for creative expression. 

Why did Netflix tweak its algorithm? 

The aim of its tweaking was to curtail attention from the press and not come across as having removed the film page or shift its release date or launch the film because that would be construed as reactionary, as per internal documents accessed by The Verge.

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The company ensured that searches for problematic terms like “pedo” wouldn’t surface results for Cuties, the documents suggested.  The company was forced to take this step because it was possible as its algorithm uses account behavioural data, which tracks what Netflix viewers watch in addition to what they search for, The Verge explained.

“If members search for “pedo” but end up playing Cuties, the French film would have eventually surfaced as a result for the search term ‘pedo’,” the news website wrote in its report.

Netflix’s trouble with content related to kids in India

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights demanded that Netflix take down the TV show Bombay Begums, in a notice based on a complaint by an individual. That show, the notice claimed, would “pollute the young minds of children”, and demanded that it be taken down within 24 hours.

The notice cites scenes where a teenager goes through body image issues and does drugs in a party. The show is classified in India as 18+. Netflix did not ban the show but met the officials from NCPCR to resolve the matter. Netflix said that the show intends to serve as a cautionary tale to no avail.

The child rights body referred its ban to Mumbai Police by firing off a missive demanding that the police enforce the ban on the show.

What does it mean for India?

There is no mention of Netflix manipulating its algorithms in India but the actions surrounding ‘Cuties’ hint that the platform might be tempted to leverage its algorithms given the flurry of controversies it has faced here; albeit none of the controversies have spun out of control yet. However, Netflix, which was once viewed as an uncompromising site on censorship, intentionally censors content on rare occasions in India.

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A few instances of censorship by Netflix:

2017: Netflix released a censored version of the film Angry Indian Goddesses in India, and put out an uncensored cut of the film in other countries. The version put out by Netflix was the one that was cleared for theatrical release by the Central Board of Film Certification, which made significant alterations to the film. After news coverage of the censorship, the company put up the uncensored cut. The film is no longer available for streaming in India.

2019: The company warned Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj against featuring a version of Kashmir’s map that is disputed by the Indian government in his show. The same year, the company reportedly refused to buy the rights to the film Sexy Durga out of political concerns. A censored cut of the film was later released on Mubi.

2020: Netflix put out the censored theatrical version of Mission Impossible: Fallout in India, a rare move that was likely aimed at avoiding depicting a version of the map of Kashmir that the Indian government disputes. The same year, it emerged that a significantly censored version of the TV show Vikings was released on the streaming service in India alone. Netflix said that they couldn’t help this censorship as they wanted to include the Hindi dubbed version of the show, which was only produced for a version of the series that had already been cut for broadcast on the History Channel’s India arm.

2021: The company put out a censored cut of South Park in India, with the show remaining uncensored in other territories. After MediaNama reached out for comment on the censorship, the company started streaming the uncut version of the show. Moreover, the company demonstrated an instance of anticipatory censorship by not releasing Record of Ragnarok, an anime series that heavily features the Hindu deity Shiva. The company refused to comment on why it took this decision. 

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Written By

I cover several beats such as crypto, telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I will be loitering at my local theatre and consuming movies by the dozen when I am off work.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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