What Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ Gets Right

I’ll tell the story again.  This blog began the day a friend of mine—a very smart one—shared an article on Facebook that was patently untrue.  When I confronted him about this, he responded that he cared more about the “issue” than the veracity of the article.  The double-take triggered by his cognitive dissonance led me to poke around and discover that the false article he had shared was hosted on multiple websites, including The Huffington Post.  This sparked the hypothesis that the unprecedented volume of repetition (a.k.a virality) made possible by the internet breeds dangerous levels of consensus around false narratives.  Hence the name The Illusion of More

That was eight years ago and small potatoes.  Last week, I watched the new documentary The Great Hack, made for Netflix and directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim.  The film’s focus is Cambridge Analytica and the (now-dissolved) company’s use of social media data to manipulate major political outcomes around the world—including the UK’s Leave.EU campaign and the American presidential election of 2016.  For anyone who somehow missed this general story, the film provides a solid overview of events along with details you might have missed and engaging profiles of the key whistleblowers and investigators who shed light on Cambridge Analytica’s activities.

In an article for The Nation, Micha L. Sifry describes what the film “gets wrong,” namely its strong implication that Cambridge Analytica literally won the election for Donald Trump.  On this one binary question, we could certainly run around the barn ad infinitum.  Those who do not like Trump will be more eager to accept this conclusion while those who support him will remain understandably resistant to any allegation that his presidency is the result of tech-enabled chicanery.  Sifry writes …

“The inference, never blatantly stated but simply conveyed by all the tricks of modern documentary-making—striking digital graphics meant to illustrate how our data leaks into the hands of others, ominous music, and alluring close-ups of  [whistleblower Brittany] Kaiser as she watches the scandal unfold on television—is that Trump won because Cambridge Analytica gave him a secret edge.”

While not a completely unfair criticism of the film, Sifry is guilty of constructing at least a diminutive straw man when he focuses on the legitimacy of Trump’s election rather than the film’s broader and more urgent message—that the democratic process is unequivocally being hacked.  This is what the film gets right, and the point is emphasized by one of its main subjects, Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian journalist most responsible for investigating the Cambridge Analytica story.  

Cadwalladr has made clear in her articles, talks, and in this film that billionaire ideologues, using “weapons grade” information technology and massive amounts of Facebook user data, sought to fracture the democratic process through calculated disinformation campaigns and, as she states, “It’s not about left or right, Leave or Remain, Trump or not Trump.  It’s about whether it is possible to have a free and fair election ever again.” 

The Great Hack wants to make its viewers care about data rights and the dangers of modern misinformation campaigns, but unfortunately is itself a slick piece of misinformation that plays artfully on the prejudices and misunderstandings rife in its targeted audience,” Sifry states.

Again, this may be a fair criticism of the film itself, but one which Sifry uses to draw an unfair conclusion about its relevance. I personally agree that The Great Hack is often too slick for its purposes.  While it may be a market reality that documentarians often need to employ glossy, theatrical production values (e.g. lively compositing effects) in their films in order to compete for audience attention, Sifry is justified in asserting that the creative choices made by the producers do imbue the film with the tone of propaganda that can dilute the seriousness of its reportage. This is especially unfortunate when the film’s subject matter is propaganda and manipulation itself.  

Consequently, the fair critique that the film is, at times, heavy-handed provides Sifry et al the opportunity to dismiss its main narrative, which is to describe how Facebook, a platform marketed as a means to “connect people,” has been weaponized to drive people apart.  This phenomenon is irrefutable and should not be brushed aside just because the producers got a bit lost in style over substance.  The substance is still there.  The story itself is arguably the greatest conspiracy in the history of modern republics. And it is still happening.

Notably, in order to bolster his criticism of the documentary, Sifry cites evidence that manipulative advertising is only so effective, stating, “When it comes to voters’ decisions about their choice of candidate, most forms of paid political persuasion, including TV ads, online ads, mailers, phone calls, and door-knocking, have no discernible effect in terms of changing people’s minds.”  

That may be true if we are talking about traditional political advertising, especially in a pre-Facebook world; but we are far from that particular Kansas, Toto.  Sifry falls into the same trap many people do by mis-measuring this period using pre-digital-age metrics.  The psychological effects of online “engagement” are nothing like the psychological effects of traditional advertising; and this true even without an intermediary using your personal data to target your personal hot buttons.   

If we go back to the example of my friend sharing a false news article, he did not perceive that material as an advertisement.  He perceived it as information, which just happened to support a rationale for a conclusion (a.k.a. deep story) he had come to believe about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012.  He was wrong about his underlying complaint, but not alone in his wrongness. Dozens of my friends were sharing the same misinformation about the bill, which was being sloppily reported all over the place; and the mere fact that this apparent consensus kept appearing on everyone’s newsfeed fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But here’s the important common thread, in my view, linking that moment to the present …

The phenomenon that was metastasizing then, and which has come around to bite us now, was the steady erosion of trust in the pillars of democratic society.  If one of the most dangerous aspects of Donald Trump is that he consistently undermines or contradicts the intelligence community, it is noteworthy that many of my Democratic and left-leaning friends were doing exactly the same thing just a few years ago—usually because of some careless bit of fluff they found on the internet, and often because “digital rights” groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation were sowing just as much distrust in those organizations as the current president does today.  This is not an indictment of the principle oversight, only an observation that living in a paradigm of universal distrust is a vicious cycle from which there is no escape.

Consider the moment we’re in this month.  The FBI says white-supremacist ideology—which just happens to have drawn strength from the techno-libertarian approach to cyber policy—poses a significant and growing threat to domestic security.  So, if one finds it appalling that Tucker Carlson can call the this evidence a hoax in the same breath in which he calls election interference a hoax, it is worth noting that the ground for his brand of bullshit was softened through social media by every user across the political spectrum finding different rationales to dismantle trust in agencies like the FBI.  

After all, it was not very long ago that most of my left-leaning friends were endorsing guys like Julian Assange and Ed Snowden as essential antidotes to the American intelligence apparatus.  This sensibility was also fueled by the steady drumbeat of tech-utopians, who continue to promote the illusion that “the internet” somehow provides us with transparency as an alternative to trusting any experts who might actually know what they’re doing—a folly that is admittedly complicated now that we have an Executive who is eager to undermine expertise in every department.   Consequently, it has been interesting to see that many of the same people who thought Wikileaks was the panacea to conspiracy are now hoping against hope that the men and women in the intelligence community are doing their jobs despite assaults on their integrity coming from their own leadership.

In this context of not knowing whom to trust, Sifry is not entirely unfair to criticize the filmmakers’ apparent infatuation with Brittany Kiaser, the former Obama intern, who became a major Cambridge Analytica executive and then turned whistleblower against her colleagues.  And he is almost certainly justified in saying that, “[Kaiser] is not the first person to pump a small role in [Obama’s] campaign into a career-making calling card; Cambridge Analytica is not the first political technology vendor to made [sic] big, unproven claims about its abilities. But we live in the age of silicon snake oil.”

We do live in an age of silicon snake oil, but that fact alone is one reason Sifry misses the point of The Great Hack as both information and metaphor.  Even if Cambridge Analytica achieved a fraction of what is presented in the documentary, it would still be a major scandal and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrates why the sales-pitch that social media would promote better forms of democracy was the apotheosis of modern snake oil swindles—so beautifully wrapped in its shiny hubris that the hucksters believed it themselves.  And many still do.  

Metaphorically, Sifry is naïve to recommend dismissing Kaiser for her character flaws rather than identifying with her because of them.  After all, to the extent that her personal narrative is accurately portrayed in the documentary, it seems to me that her arc from progressive-minded idealist, to overpaid hack for a technology company doing very bad things, to sobered individual trying to remedy some of what she did wrong, does mirror the broader narrative we have been watching unfold with regard to Silicon Valley over the last two years.  And that is fundamentally what The Great Hack gets right.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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