WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
The Great Hack (2019) is a documentary focussing on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm that fed the Trump 2016 propaganda machine and harvested personal data from more than 50 million Facebook users. It also had links to the Brexit campaign. The film explains in great detail how social media sites like Facebook and data companies like Cambridge Analytica collect and use people’s data for specific agendas. It brings to light questions regarding cybersecurity, privacy and big data.
The film is directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, and throughout, they talk to journalists, experts, as well as whistle-blowers and former employees of Cambridge Analytica. It explores links between seemingly innocent actions Facebook users may have conducted, such as ‘fun’ personality tests on Facebook and efforts to influence public opinion on massive scales by politicians and ideological groups. However, based on the quizzes and other information harvested from posts and the friends users associate with on the platform, specialised data analysis tools used artificial intelligence and calculations to generate a startlingly accurate profile of users.
WHO ARE THE KEY FIGURES?
Brittany Kaiser, former Director of business development at Cambridge Analytica, enlightens us on the inner workings and aims of the company. She argues how you don’t need to change everyone’s mind (when speaking about political campaigning), only the minds of the “persuadables”- those who could easily be persuaded to change their opinions regarding the vote. The way in which they are identified is through understanding not only what they buy and say about themselves but also how they think. Through collecting personal data, the firm ultimately succeeded in identifying and persuading them. With the data, they created fear and/or apathy to acquire the desired results of their hiring political parties.
The film also incorporates the key story of David Carroll, who was the first to take legal action against Cambridge Analytica on 16 March 2018. He is an American Professor who filed a case to reclaim his data from the company under English law. However, Carroll’s attempt to lift the veil from the data-industrial complex that underpinned Cambridge Analytica unfortunately failed. Because although he proved that the firm had illegally processed his data, his attempt to retrieve that data was destroyed by the firm’s decision to liquidate. On 18 April 2019, the high court ruled against appointing new administrators of Cambridge Analytica, thereby thwarting Carroll’s efforts to retrieve his data.
Another key figure in the documentary is whistle-blower and former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie– a Canadian data consultant. In 2018, he released several documents to The Guardian. He exposed the extent of the company’s wrongdoings with them illegally harvesting the data of 87 million Facebook users to create psychographic profiles of voters. He severely condemned the actions of Cambridge Analytica and suggested that the vast amount of data we share about ourselves on social media platforms can be combined, synthesised and potentially weaponised with the purpose of shaping our thoughts, feelings and voting habits. He also helped Carole Cadwalladr for a year in this investigation.
British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, was the first journalist to break the story. She published her investigation into Cambridge Analytica with the New York Times. This resulted in Facebook losing more than $100 billion from its share price as well as Mark Zuckerberg having to stand before Congress in April 2019. Cadwalladr also uncovered many wrongdoings committed by Cambridge Analytica during the European referendum 2016, but the firm denied being heavily involved in the Brexit campaign.
For someone who knew very little about the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal before watching the documentary, it was enlightening and informational. Unfortunately, after subsequent research, The Great Hack doesn’t uncover much that hasn’t been reported elsewhere. However, in the ways it does, it is powerful. For example, in one scene, when Zuckerberg testifies before Congress and talks about Facebook’s associations with Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser reacts with total shock and disbelief. Her reaction says it all.
There are many claims throughout the documentary that aren’t substantiated. However, they are damning nevertheless. Allegations of dishonesty, fraud, and ethical shadiness are thrown around, but the sheer emotion and drive towards exposing them by whistle-blowers Kaiser and Wylie demonstrate the severity of the wrongdoings conducted by Cambridge Analytica.
The documentary could be deemed a little too invested in believing that fake news is something that we can control and regulate. However, it gives a sobering reminder to be mindful of who and what platforms you provide your information to because data is worth everything in this modern day and age.