'The Great Hack’ Review: Weapons-Grade Persuasion

This Netflix documentary from the directors of 'The Square' shows how government elections are being won using big data and tailored propaganda.

The Great Hack

At the intersection of big data and government, there are so many crashes. Laura Poitras’ thrilling and Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour helped us understand how the American government is collecting and using data for surveillance purposes. Netflix’s The Great Hack provides an interesting follow-up, showing how data mining now elects those governments, swaying votes by pinpointing those who could be bombarded by bespoke propaganda.

You can see how directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (The Square) were inspired by the earlier film because theirs has a similar tone and format. The Great Hack similarly follows a central whistleblower as they anxiously await their fate, while also explaining their disclosures. But Edward Snowden and Brittany Kaiser are quite different characters. Both are articulate and magnetic on screen, but Kaiser’s hipster ambivalence is in turns baffling and off-putting. The film follows her from Burning Man to Thailand to London to D.C. to New York as she explains the nuances of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data breach, especially in relation to the Donald Trump election and Brexit vote. But we are never sure what she’s running from, other than her own conscience and maybe brunch bills.

Cambridge Analytica was a British-based political consulting firm founded by Steve Bannon, among others. They used extensive data analysis to provide political candidates with communication plans. A Facebook survey gave the firm access to data of all those that took the survey and then snuck data from everyone in their networks. The numbers snowballed to over 50 million Facebook users info being used for psychographic profiling. The firm determined who was “persuadable” and then tailored ads to alter their vote. Kaiser and another whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, explain in the doc how this profiling amounted to weapons-grade propaganda technique. They should know because there were military contracts at that firm.

First hired by the Ted Cruz campaign during the Republican primaries prior to the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica mined for American voter triggers. When Trump momentum took over, all the data transferred to his purposes. At the height of their communication strategy, a push called Project Alamo, the Trump camp was spending $1 million per day on Facebook ads based on Analytica’s data points. Personality prediction spurred aggressive video content, often some version of the “Crooked Hillary” narrative. Obviously, that strategy succeeded.

Probably not many Americans view themselves as “persuadable,” it’s part of the hubris of our modern condition. For further evidence please Google “fake news.” But our data proves otherwise, tracking our strengths and vulnerabilities. Part of the message of the doc is that our data is an extension of our self; it reflects our reality. And it can be filtered and altered from the outside. Our privacy and free will are interfered with on a daily basis, which has profound implications for democratic processes. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian is a central figure in the film. She explains that after the Brexit vote — another campaign Analytica consulted for — investigations proved that disinformation intervened so profoundly in the vote that the process was corrupted. The election was determined “not fit for purpose.”

And if there was any further need to prove nefarious doings with this data, David Carroll gives another vantage point within the film. The Parsons School of Design media professor sued Cambridge Analytica to acquire his data profile. The firm was ordered to give that information and failed to comply, they did not want that data seen. Bankruptcy amidst the breach scandal protected them from a level of transparency and accountability.

All evidence points to playful and imperious behavioral experimentation using big data sets. Another example laid out from Trinidad’s election is extremely disturbing and altogether racist. Recordings of former Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and Kaiser prove the gleeful partying tone amidst all this manipulation. Kaiser explains that she used to do social media work for Barack Obama, but she wasn’t “seeing results.” When she started working for Cambridge Analytica, she was overjoyed at the change she was able to effect.

This struck me as a particularly illuminating and Joker-esque motivation. It’s almost as if negative change is easier than positive change and so why not just speed the car towards a wall? Watching this film, I hoped that Kaiser was reflecting critically on her role, and the filmmakers clearly were, too. There’s a scene in a cab in which they zoom in on her face, urging her tears to fall. They don’t. But that’s an acceptable climax to this kind of doc. We are still grappling with how our networked world has created new crimes and new criminals. We need films like this to tell us over and over what the stakes are when we give ourselves over to apps and memes and viral videos. Because we are being persuaded. And those persuaders don’t even particularly care why.

Katherine has a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and an enduring opinionated love for documentary. More of her reviews can be found on her blog: doctake.com