Director: Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
Writer: Karim Amer, Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos
Cast: David Carroll, Brittany Kaiser, Carole Cadwalladr
After watching this film, you’re likely to feel a lingering unease. Should we continue using the internet? Should we delete all email accounts, get off every social media platform and start living in a non-digital cocoon? Netflix’s The Great Hack makes you mighty uncomfortable about your digital life.
The documentary, which was released on Wednesday, July 24, talks about harvesting the most valuable commodity in the world today, data, and minces no words in showing us how grave and far-reaching its consequences are. It explores the role of Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct data research firm based in the United Kingdom, and how it harvested personal data and used it to influence the outcomes of the 2016 US presidential elections, the Brexit campaign and a host of other elections around the world.
The story begins with David Carroll, a media academic at New York’s Parsons School of Design, who launches a legal campaign against Cambridge Analytica to obtain whatever data the firm has on him. Also featured are Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower and Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist with The Observer who played a major role in unearthing this scandal.
Cadwalladr is one of the authors of a collaborative report by The New York Times, The Guardian and The Observer that exposes how Cambridge Analytica mined data from the Facebook profiles of millions of users. Her investigation further reveals a rather stark connection between the firm and the Republican party in the United States. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was the vice-president of Cambridge Analytica. Soon, an undercover tape is released that shows top Cambridge Analytica executives bragging about their role in numerous political campaigns, including the US election and Nigel Farage’s ‘Leave.EU’ campaign.
As a can of worms opens up about Cambridge Analytica’s shady involvement in numerous political campaigns across the world, the film gives us a brief insight into one particularly alarming instance, the ‘do so’ campaign in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013. This campaign involved bombarding catchy graphics, slogans and even dance routines on social media in a bid to create apathy for the government among the youth of the country. The motive was to discourage young people from voting at all.
David Carroll does not end up obtaining the data he asked for from Cambridge Analytica, but his role in the entire saga has been vital. It is interesting to note that when Cambridge Analytica finally pleads guilty, it is not for all the unethical mining and use of data, but for defying a government order to hand over the data that Carroll demanded.
Kaiser’s role in this mess is slightly baffling as the reasons for her choosing to speak out against her former employers remain unclear. She is remorseful for her actions as a Cambridge Analytica employee but only to an extent, and doesn’t believe the voters were manipulated.
Yet she reveals damning details about how the firm focused on the swing states during the US election, and used its exclusive ‘psychographics’ technology to identify those voters who were ‘pursuadables’. They would then push content towards these voters that would nudge incline them to vote for Trump. These claims have, however, never been verified.
The documentary leaves us with an important message: data rights are human rights, and underlines how strong data integrity and privacy norms are the need of the hour.
The Great Hack will possibly leave you a little paranoid and with a lot of questions. But in today’s day and age where using the internet is as routine as brushing one’s teeth, the movie does a great job bringing out the ramifications of people’s digital footprints.