Review: The Great Hack - a look inside the ‘full service propaganda machine’
The Great Hack, a riveting documentary by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, centres around the Cambridge Analytica scandal that raised huge questions around the ethics of several election campaigns, but mostly the Brexit vote and 2016 US election, which saw Trump ascend to the presidency.
Anyone who is already questioning whether or not they should leave Facebook might just get the incentive they are looking for after watching this, and I’d hazard a guess that most people will steer clear of those fun, time-wasting personality tests. This Netflix film is meant to scare us, and it does - for good reason.
The main message of the film is that data rights are human rights, and that we’ve become the commodity, with our every click, every search and every purchase being stored, saved and sold to businesses that want to target us better and sell us more. More alarmingly, it’s being used to manipulate our decisions.
The film unpacks how Cambridge Analytica, a British data research company, sneakily harvested information from millions of Facebook users and their friends via a seemingly harmless `personality’ questionnaire. The company came under fire for manipulating voters.
For example, the company claimed to have 5 000 data points on every American voter, which could help it `predict the personality of every person in the United States’. And it did - it put its enormous database to work with AI-tooled, highly targeted campaigns for Trump and the Brexiters, to manipulate voters, and therefore the outcome.
At the centre of the documentary is David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, who is determined to find the answers to how his personal data was misused. He asked for a copy of his data profile, and Cambridge Analytica refused, which set off an alarm bell. He then launched a legal campaign in the UK to force the company to hand over a copy of his data profile. However, after the company declared bankruptcy, the documentation may never come to light.
UK journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who writes for the Observer, also played a crucial role. It was her dogged investigation and excellent reporting that exposed the scandal in the first place. She posed the question of whether we will ever have another free and fair election.
She says in the opening: “It began with a dream of a connected world. Matchmaker, instant fact checker, guardian of our memories…but no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.
“These platforms, which were created to connect us, have been weaponised, and it’s now impossible to know what is what, because it’s happening on exactly the same platforms we use to chat with our friends and use to share baby photos; nothing is what it seems. They are stoking fear and hate to turn the country against itself - divide and conquer,” she added.
Another individual central to the film is Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower, although, in my opinion, she comes off as fatuous, insincere and more like a rat rushing to leave a ship that it knows has sprung a leak.
Kaiser played an integral role in drawing up contracts with the Trump campaign and was the ‘right hand man’ to Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix. In a move she said was about regaining her moral compass, she revealed what she knows about which of her colleagues was lying about their involvement in various election campaigns, as well as what actually happened to all the data Cambridge Analytica claimed to have deleted.
Ultimately, the documentary helps viewers understand what really happened, and raises the alarms about how everything we do online remains as a digital footprint that businesses are looking to exploit to manipulate our decisions - some more serious than others.