Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
Starring David Carroll, Brittany Kaiser, Carole Cadwalladr
It’s going to be complicated recapping The Great Hack, the Netflix documentary from husband and wife team Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim which talks about the evils of data mining and its use toward nefarious political ends. But even if it takes some effort to wrap your head around the facts and timelines and concepts that The Great Hack traffics in, I would suggest a second viewing—this time to let the implications of what it’s trying to say really sink in. It’s something those of us who spend a majority of our waking hours tapping on our cellphones, hitting like buttons and doing searches on Google, can’t afford to be oblivious about.
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Like a great conspiracy thriller, The Great Hack first introduces us to an Everyman tilting at the windmill: amiable American academician and father of two David Carroll, who is shown at the beginning lecturing his apathetic students on the eerily predictive nature of internet advertising. (This, after a pre-credits opening showing Carroll walking around New York City as pixelated cinders float from other people’s phones and credit cards, puffing out personal data like exhaust, until the entire city devolves into a Matrix-like nightmare vision; the visual callback to that film can’t have been a coincidence.) Carroll is worried that we have been mindlessly surrendering our data to Big Tech, allowing it to manipulate purchasing behavior and abetting the dispersal of fake news—and in the wake of 2016, facilitating the rise of unhinged politicians like Donald Trump.
That leads Carroll to follow the bread crumbs all the way to UK-based Cambridge Analytica, the data science consulting firm co-founded by millionaire Robert Mercer and, more tellingly, by Breitbart guru and Trump’s ex-adviser Steve Bannon, who sought to mold society in his right-wing values by staging a “culture war.” At one point, Cambridge Analytica boasted about having 5,000 data points on every American voter—230 million people in all. Carroll hires a British lawyer to get the company to release the data it has accumulated on him. Of course, Cambridge Analytica refuses, and in the blustery manner characteristic of right-wing talking points, even compares Carroll to a cave-dwelling member of the Taliban. A protracted legal battle ensues.
But things are about to blow up: After sounding the alarm on Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit Leave campaign (and having despicable video about her sprinkled all over the internet for it), a reporter for The Observer named Carole Cadwalladr breaks a story about a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie (which is the point where global attention is first focused on the issue of underhanded use of digital data). The pink-haired and nose-ringed data scientist—a figure ready-made to represent the Big Tech hipster if there ever was one—testifies to a British legislative inquiry that the company had paid Facebook to not only run ads on its platform, but also to allow access to the data of its users, harvesting them even after Facebook had instructed them to delete the data they had mined (but without bothering to check if the company had complied). Wylie testified that this surreptitiously gathered data was what Cambridge Analytica used to influence the sliver of persuadable American voters to sweep Trump into office; more interestingly, he tells the inquiry that if they want to get a more insider view into the workings of Cambridge Analytica, they should summon the company’s former director of business development Brittany Kaiser.
Kaiser is a figure who is hard to like—which only burnishes The Great Hack’s bonafides as a nail-biting thriller. When we first encounter this story’s other self-styled whistleblower, she is lolling in an infinity pool in Thailand, indulging in paranoid fantasies about being eliminated by influential Big Tech. A few conversations later, she is persuaded to lend her perspective to the British inquiry. She is undoubtedly a compelling character: Once an idealistic intern for the Obama campaign’s social media push, Kaiser says she got swept into working for Cambridge Analytica and its efforts for the Brexit Leave and Trump campaigns because the Obama and Hillary Clinton people “never offered to pay her.” And then the documentary softens the sting of this motivation by letting Kaiser talk about her family’s dire financial constraints. As she goes before the inquiry, she makes the explosive assertion that data can be weaponized to devastating effect, and that Cambridge Analytica cynically circumvented the British government’s safeguards against exporting it.
The Great Hack toggles between the viewpoints of the Everyman crusader, the dogged journalist, and the whistleblower whose motivations are never really made clear, sticking to its narrative that data mining is the greatest threat to democracy. It certainly knows which buttons to push: As Mark Zuckerberg faces a U.S. Senate inquiry into Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica brouhaha, both Kaiser and Carroll are shown heckling the CEO in real time for his obfuscating answers, and then (ironically) logging on to Twitter to voice their thoughts. The CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, is also portrayed as an unsavory character: a sleek, besuited huckster who paints himself as a victim even when undercover video of him plotting the downfall of a Ukrainian politician by snaring him with prostitutes is later unearthed.
What is ultimately frustrating about The Great Hack is that it doesn’t go far enough. It focuses on Cambridge Analytica as the villain, but doesn’t widen its scope to take in the global implications of its thesis. In an early sequence, Amer and Noujaim follow Cadwalladr as she retraces her reams of background research on the company, discovering that it beta-tested its services by first influencing elections in far-flung Third World nations like Trinidad and Tobago. But it doesn’t return to that tantalizing tidbit as it sums up its global-threat warning, only ending with an impassioned TED Talk from Cadwalladr to Facebook, Google and Twitter, admonishing them to uphold free and fair elections. As a Filipino viewer, I would have appreciated a dive into other data-manipulation tactics like troll farms.
There is also a bit of a liberal screed to The Great Hack. While it acknowledges that the Obama campaign also utilized social media for its success, the documentary doesn’t really go into substantive arguments on what makes its tactics different from the Trump campaign’s, only that Trump surrogates unleashed 5 million Internet ads compared to Hillary’s 66,000, and that right-wing success stories like Trump and the push to leave the EU are setbacks the world will take “decades to recover from”. By refusing to tackle data manipulation as a Free Speech issue, The Great Hack comes off looking sore that Trump was more successful at harnessing the tactics Obama first used. The Great Hack tells a rip-roaring story, but it ultimately only tells half the story.