‘The Great Hack’, Netflix’s newest documentary film, feels more like an intense murder mystery that’s filled with profound political intrigue. It’s also the most disturbing yet revelatory film that I have seen in a long time.
Brilliantly made by two Egyptian-American filmmakers, the film is all about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which has already forced Facebook to pay $5 billion to the US Federal Trade Commission for its role in selling tens of millions of FB-users’ data to Cambridge Analytica (CA).
The former military contractor turned political campaign manager Cambridge Analytica didn’t suffer a comparable fate to FB because its CEO Alexander Nix dissolved the company before CA’s criminality was fully exposed. Yet this film does its best to unravel the intricate online operations of these two firms.
Both operating in stealthy ways which were either incomprehensible or simply invisible to the average Facebook user, what the film reveals is that CA essentially ‘weaponised’ its user data rather like remotely-controlled drones. Both data and drones get their targets set and then are let loose to hit their mark.
In CA’s case, the target was winning elections for political candidates who pay up.
Investigations are still ongoing to determine to what extent CA influenced which political elections. But the film clearly reveals that CA worked for the Brexit right-wingers in the UK and the US Republican Party keen to elect Donald Trump president in 2016.
Filmmakers Jehane Noujain and Karim Amer first made The [Tahrir] Square about the Arab Spring in Egypt before they embarked on The Great Hack. The role of technology is largely what led them from one film to the other. In the first instance, social media primarily played a positive role in social change while in the second, the harvesting of data from social media (that’s FB) largely served sinister and undemocratic purposes.
The Great Hack focuses on two antithetical players in the data scandal. David Carroll is a New York media professor who sues CA to get his data back. He wins the lawsuit but Nix dismantles his company before he can get it back. Nonetheless, Carroll proves his point, that CA acquired his data illegally.
Brittany Kaiser is a former CA director and geek who was hired by Nix specifically to ‘weaponise’ FB’s data to manipulate voters in any given country (including Kenya). Based on the online ‘likes’ of FB users, psychological profiles determined how and who to target with ads and ‘fake news’ that would persuade prospective voters to cast their ballot for CA’s preferred candidate. It was Donald Trump in the US 2016 presidential election; it was the pro-Brexit vote in the UK.
Kaiser became a whistleblower as did another CA ex-employee Christopher Wylie. But Kaiser’s revelations are even more damning of CA since she knew all about how and where the company was hired (for big bucks) to do the dirty tricks of which client.
“We went to the Democratic Party first, but they wouldn’t pay us. The Republicans did,” she admits.