The Great Hack (2019)
Dirs. Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
At an emotionally tense moment about halfway through The Great Hack (2019), writer and political technologist Paul Hilder quietly offers us this paradox: “It’s real, and it’s fake.” The apparent contradiction touches and comments on a larger issue in the film: what we do online is, at the same time, both entirely imaginary and painfully real. Released this week on Netflix, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s new documentary about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal proposes that this paradox is a problem for all of us. A huge problem.
At the heart of The Great Hack, an informative but overambitious documentary, is Cambridge Analytica, a British data analysis company that made the U.S. news due to its alleged role in hacking the 2016 presidential election. In the U.S. election, for instance, they played a massive role online in dividing populations in swing states, encouraging potential independents to vote for Trump, effectively helping him win. “Encouraging” isn’t quite the right word, though. Systematic attacks, including fake news videos and memes, were built to metastasize online, spreading through social media accounts. Facebook, of course, was the largest platform for these viral attacks. But, as the documentary shows, that election was just the tip of the iceberg. Former CEO Alexander Nix, who refused interviews with the film’s directors, seems to have been involved in every major election fraud over the past 15 years. Cambridge Analytica has been involved with elections from Trinidad and Tobago to Nigeria, and has (unethically, and perhaps illegally) collected thousands of data points on millions of people worldwide.
A couple figures guide us through these complicated issues in the film. There’s David Carroll, an American professor of media who sued Cambridge Analytica for access to the personal data they had collected on him. He jokes that he’s the dad who reads privacy policies on his kids’ apps. Carole Cadwalladr, a British investigative journalist for The Guardian and The Observer, leads us through her expositions of links between Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU, a political campaign driving British efforts to leave the European Union. You have to like Cadwalladr: she’s genuine, amiable, and speaks with both clarity and authority. A more conflicting figure is Brittany Kaiser, who started by working for the Obama campaign before taking a job at Cambridge Analytica. Watching her involves a feeling somewhere between sympathy and antipathy. On the one hand, she claims to be a necessary whistleblower on an unchecked, power-hungry company; on the other, her emotional outbreaks seem almost entirely solipsistic, as she rarely brings up the fact that she played a crucial role in making the company what it was. Interviewing Kaiser is the aforementioned Hilder, who approaches Kaiser’s performances with a healthy dose of circumspection and skepticism. The Great Hack never quite brings all these figures into the same arena, opting rather to follow their diverging narratives individually.
As Carroll, Cadwalladr, and Hilder explore the intricacies of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, some chilling revelations emerge. According to investigators, Cambridge Analytica fabricated divisive videos and even Facebook pages, designed specifically to target swing voters. Such media included doctored footage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign speeches, or fake Black Lives Matter memes that seemed to suggest that the movement was far more militant than in real life. But that’s where it gets trickier: those “fake” pages created events like rallies and protests online, invited people to join them, and carried them out in reality. Even more disturbing is how unfazed Nix and other tech big-shots, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, are by the accusations against them. Both lie directly to various investigatory committees; Nix even frames himself as the victim of the “global liberal media.” Kaiser, for her part, unironically tells Hilder that she doesn’t want her geolocation shared in the film. All this is stitched together by Amer and Noujaim’s team, leading up to an unequivocal condemnation of not only Cambridge Analytica, but the entire process of “big data” collection.
The Great Hack appears, at first, to offer a nuanced presentation of a vastly complicated, globally-relevant problem. On further analysis, the apparently subtle view is really just an overly-complicated one, and the film’s intended impact is severely weakened by a plethora of structural flaws. The first problem is that clarity is not the film’s strong suit. Although the central story revolves around a few individuals’ interactions with Cambridge Analytica, the film seems to expands indefinitely. Tying together diverse strands like Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, elections in Brazil, genocide in Myanmar, and much more, the documentary attempts a cohesive picture of an enormous issue that has affected billions of people in myriad ways, and falls short. At just under two hours, the film is a bit too long to focus on just one of these events; on the other hand, two hours just isn’t enough to effectively tie together all of the loose ends.
Another problem is that the film isn’t entirely transparent about the way it presents evidence or characters. Although Carroll, Cadwalladr, and Kaiser are all interesting figures, we’re never clearly told why they merit near-exclusive appearance as experts in the film. Some figures also seem to disappear midway through the film, and the directors even employ a bait-and-switch technique by introducing a character as supposedly reliable witnesses, and then later exposing his disingenuousness. This happens with Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, and one of the first whistleblowers on that company. The Great Hack doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of him. First, he’s introduced as an essential key to the scandal, prized for his insight into Cambridge Analytica. He’s the first to criticize Kaiser, saying that she’s “not a whistleblower.” Later, however, his reliability is called into question when it comes out that he wasn’t even working for Cambridge Analytica during the time he claimed to have insider information about. Then he disappears from the film altogether, not even appearing in the pre-credits “where they are now” bit. This makes it difficult to understand who we’re even supposed to trust in the film, and made me question the objectivity of the makers.
Moreover, since The Great Hack introduces people rather unexpectedly at times, it’s impossible to understand how the timeline works, or how each individual fits into the larger picture. Most of the figures are well-known, but there’s very little context provided in certain cases. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Russian hacking are all presented at once with little introduction, resting on the assumption that viewers are not only familiar with these individual strands, but are aware of their connection to the larger issue, which is not necessarily the case. Additionally, there’s not much information about the way personal data is created, only about the way it’s collected, and there’s no discussion of the difference between data and metadata. The closest we get to a precise discussion is the repeated, vague claim that Cambridge Analytica had “5,000 data points” on every American. (But even what is a “data point,” anyway?) An even more pervasive issue is that nobody actually talks about how this kind of data collection differs from what was done in past elections. Obama’s successful digital campaign, which spent millions on digital ads, is mentioned a few times, but Carroll and Hilder are surprisingly silent about what makes Cambridge Analytica’s data use different, and more importantly, dangerous. These gaps undermine the overall claim, and could allow critics to argue that the film cherrypicks its examples.
On the other hand, if you already know a lot about data and tech companies, you’ll probably be bored by The Great Hack. Although some of the revelations about certain individuals’ roles in the scandal are new, most of the arguments and concepts are, by now, fairly ubiquitous. Personal data is available online via social media; large tech companies use “big data” unethically; this data can be used to manipulate people’s responses in real life. If you’ve ever read a Motherboard or Slate article, there’s a good chance that you are already familiar with most of this. The Great Hack thus falls into an unfortunate double-bind in that it isn’t all that helpful for people unfamiliar or familiar with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Cinematically, The Great Hack doesn’t push the boundaries much, but it doesn’t need to. It’s pretty standard for documentaries in its employment of interviews, footage, and voiceovers. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the film is, however, its use of social media. Throughout the film, conversations between Caroll and Cadwalladr, or Kaiser and Nix pop up as iMessage bubbles on the screen. The same thing happens with Carroll’s live tweets: we get to read them on-screen as he “types” them out. This is hardly a rare technique for modern documentaries (it’s even visible in Sherlock [2010-]), but I found it especially effective here, given the underlying message that personal data is everywhere. Puzzlingly, the tweets are inconsistently displayed. Sometimes they show how many likes or retweets they received; others only show the text. This wasn’t a huge problem for understanding the film, but it was a bit distracting.
Structural issues aside, The Great Hack is an important film for this day and age. Like all good investigative journalism, the documentary peers into the dark, unpleasant crevices of society and interrogates whatever it finds there. Carroll, Cadwalladr, and Hilder should all be credited for their contributions and struggles, and I commend Amer and Noujaim for making a film that was potentially dangerous. Just five days ago, The Guardian reported that Arron Banks threatened to sue Netflix over the release of the documentary, showing that there’s a whole network of politicians and Silicon Valley moguls committed to covering up as much of the scandal as they can. Toward the end of the film, the phrase “a free and fair election” is uttered several times, as the film demonstrates the consequences of this scandal on democracy. Cambridge Analytica is gone; unethical mass collection of personal data is not. It’s a trillion-dollar industry, or, as Kaiser puts it in the film: “Data is the most valuable asset on earth.” It’s a good message in an ambitious film; I just wish The Great Hack had made it a little more convincing.