The abuses associated with big data have become regular headline fodder, and the repercussions of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal continue to be adjudicated. “The Great Hack” does an admirable job of weaving together those threads in an intelligible way, and how the “dream of the connected world” has been exploited, as academic David Carroll puts it, to “tear us apart.”
“We are now the commodity,” Carroll — an American professor who sued Cambridge Analytica in the U.K. seeking to reclaim his data — says in voiceover at the outset, discussing a trillion-dollar data industry that has surpassed oil as the world’s leading asset. In the crush to capitalize on all the benefits that technology offered, he notes, “No one bothered to read the terms and conditions.”
Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim then meticulously proceed, with the pacing and filmmaking style of what feels like a ’70s paranoid thriller, to detail Cambridge Analytica’s role in the US presidential election and Brexit votes, being led through the process by Carroll, journalists and former employees turned whistleblowers Christopher Wylie and Brittany Kaiser.
The challenge, of course, is to deal with what transpired in the kind of layman’s terms that won’t cause eyes to glaze over. Wylie effectively does that in discussing how Cambridge was able to create a “full-service propaganda machine.” In a leaked sales presentation, executives pitch the company as s a “behavior-change agency” — offering “the holy grail of communications” by promising to move the needle among those who fall into the persuadable category.
Kaiser, meanwhile, is tracked down “somewhere in Thailand,” where she details how the combination of money and CEO Alexander Nix’s charm swayed her to work for Cambridge Analytica, which, as Wylie describes it, gave former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon the weapon that he desperately wanted “to fight his culture war.”
Even skeptics of the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s impact on elections in the US and UK should be alarmed by the conversation about the ways social media has been effectively turned into a propaganda tool, while tech companies — especially Facebook — seemed unconcerned as long as the checks kept clearing, until they were publicly exposed and shamed. (There’s priceless material here in which interview subjects are shown basically engaging in real-time heckling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony, calling out misleading or untrue statements.)
In many respects, “The Great Hack” plays like a work in progress, as much a warning of what’s to come as a recap of the story so far.
It is, admittedly, a lot to process. Yet at the very least, this sobering documentary should make anybody who clears two hours to watch it want to learn more, to be more skeptical about what finds its way into one’s inbox, and to think twice before blithely clicking “Agree” on those boilerplate listings of terms and conditions.
“The Great Hack” premieres July 24 on Netflix and in select theaters.