Social media has opened so many doors which cannot be closed. People invest too much in an alternate reality. The sinister Black Mirror episode Nosedive is testimony to the Orwellian direction we are heading, where ‘Likes’ equal status and social standing. If something appears on social media – regardless of its credibility – certain sectors of the society will deem it true – or at the very least a cause of conversation. As a result, issues regarding privacy have long been overlooked, despite the massive risk they pose. Which is why the latest heavy-hitting Netflix documentary, playfully entitled The Great Hack, is long overdue, if not a little too late in the scheme of things.
Wider social context out of the way, The Great Hack looks into very abyss of online platforms to highlight these dangers, although it does feel like they are closing the stable door after the cyber horse has bolted. Filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (The Square) bring to light what we really already knew. What is explored in this one-off documentary-film is what is already out there. There may be a reason as to why that is, and why they kept the documentary so tight as not to reveal too much about who is pulling the strings. Although it does not skirt around, and it does present facts, it does not point the finger in the right direction.
However, once rumors began to circulate of how billionaire and Brexit funder Arron Banks was threatening to sue Netflix over The Great Hack, interest in the film immediately spiked. Throughout the documentary the question is asked of Cambridge Analytica: what did you do? Former Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix described it as a “data-driven communications company” during a sales presentation video presented in the film. This documentary is clever from the outset, including lecturer David Carroll’s commentary in which he asks his students the fundamental question, “Who has seen an ad that has convinced you that your microphone is listening to your conversations?” Carroll filed a lawsuit in the UK against Cambridge Analytica to get his own voter profile and lift the lid on the apocalyptic can of worms.
It is, we learn, really harvesting Facebook profiles, or rather personalities, and targeting specifically those who could sway decisions in favor of those who could afford it. The film examines strategies such as Project Alamo spending one million a day on the 2016 US elections, which led to the Trump win with the help of Cambridge Analytica. Doing so it makes a connection to Brexit and Farage, putting it out under the microscope. What we learn is that Cambridge Analytica is not a brilliant, groundbreaking source or technique, it is simply a weapon for propaganda. It operates by spreading information via social media instead of regular media formats. At its core The Great Hack presents a doomsday scenario, Orwellian in value which will make you want to destroy your devices and strangle Alexa.
One aspect that confuses is why Brittany Kaiser is involved in The Great Hack. This former Cambridge Analytica executive explains how the company’s strategies work. She highlights how they opened Pandora’s box by first targeting “persuadables,” people whose ‘psychographic’ profiles pointed to those users being open to suggestions, or simply persuasions. Once their specific triggers were identified, content was created to target their fears, anxieties and insecurities. “We bombarded them with ads,” Kaiser says in a voice-over, “until they saw the world the way we wanted them to”.
All this is extremely daunting, and most likely it will rock your views on social media. But strangely, that is the thing which is slightly missed or not given its time here. Yes, swaying people’s minds to suit your own needs is horrendous, but those systems which are in place are also accountable as much as those who manipulate them. Recent weeks has seen Robert Mueller testify in front of Congress that, ‘yes,’ Russia interfered with the 2016 elections. One certainty is that somewhere there is a Russian Analytica working around the clock targeting persuaders.
The Great Hack is great viewing if not a tad overlong and dragged out unnecessarily by long sequences. The technology that has been invented is amazing, as much as it is becoming a crime scene of privacy breaches. Even that display of Mark Zuckerburg in front of committee for a public hand-slapping does nothing to alleviate anxiety. Quite simply, if the public does not want to have its information violated, it should not put it out there in the first place. That is the ironically twisted moral of the story.