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The Great Hack

How Cambridge Analytica and Facebook took over the 2016 election.
June 21, 2019
The Great Hack

In the opening moments of The Great Hack, one of its central figures ponders America’s 2016 presidential campaign: “Who was feeding us fear?” he asks. “And why?” This uncompromising Netflix documentary, available July 24, provides the answer: We have become commodities whose privacy has been peddled to those who would manipulate us for their own financial and political ends.

As cinema, The Great Hack is superb—a crisply edited, intimate, and propulsive story with fascinating characters. But what makes it uniquely important is the subject matter: the grotesque societal distortions perpetuated by tech giants such as Facebook, who use their dominance of the information economy to mine data which they barter for billions in profit. Through indifference and venality, they have enabled malign actors, including Cambridge Analytica and the Russians, to target users with hatred, disinformation, and propaganda which undermines free and fair elections in democracies around the globe.

That’s not hyperbole. More than arguably, Facebook and those who exploit its business model, had a material influence on both America’s 2016 presidential campaign and Great Britain’s Brexit referendum. The Great Hack shows how that happened—and how little these profiteers care about the impact of their actions.

Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim humanize the issues by organizing their narrative around three principal characters who, collectively, personify the stakes.The first is David Carroll, a professor of media design who believes that data privacy is a human right.

The promise of social media, Carroll tells his students, was that we could share our experiences with others, and therefore feel less alone. But the reality is that our private data doesn’t simply vanish—instead, it has become the rocket fuel for a multi-billion-dollar information business. “We are now a commodity,” Carroll admonishes: his personal information—and everyone else’s—is available to those in Facebook’s stream of commerce who can “buy access to my emotional pulse.”

Carroll’s concerns are both personal and societal. These social media predators, he warns, “manipulate our emotions—and our votes”; the dystopia he once feared would envelop his young children is already here. His resolve and humanity give viewers a stake in how he’s trying to fight back: a lawsuit in the UK against Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining operation which exploited the personal information of unwitting Facebook users to target American voters.

Carroll’s request is deceptively modest: He wants to recover his personal data. But this would permit him to explore the connection between CA and Facebook. As the film reveals moment by moment, both CA and Facebook view transparency, even candor, as deeply problematic. As well they might.

The Great Hack introduces us to Project Alamo, the Trump campaign’s internet operation which, at its height, spent $1 million a day on Facebook ads targeting users based on personal data in large part mined from, well, Facebook. The brains of this operation was CA, which exploited Facebook’s commoditization of personal data to give the Trump campaign intimate individual portraits of voters in critical states.

Early clips of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix—who comes off as slick, emotionless, and borderline creepy—show him marketing his firm’s ability to revolutionize campaigning through a granular manipulation of voters.. Later in the documentary, when he’s seen proposing to set honey traps for political candidates, this hoary stratagem seems almost quaint.

Far scarier is the ease with which CA turned Facebook’s business model into a weapon for stripping data from its users. Not to mention how easily CA insinuated itself with Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign for president, even as it angled for a position with the ultimate GOP nominee – Donald Trump

Following the election, clips show Nix and company celebrating Trump’s triumph in terms of what they saw as its ultimate promise: that CA could become a billion-dollar business, rooted in undermining democratic elections worldwide through the surreptitious use of private data to influence individual voters.

The next principal figure in The Great Hack is Carol Cadwalladr. An unusually dogged British reporter for the Guardian, she becomes obsessed with finding out what, exactly, Cambridge Analytica was doing – and how. Her initial focus was CA’s role in Brexit—the ultimately victorious effort spearheaded by Nigel Farage to win a referendum allowing Great Britain to leave the European Union.

In 2015, Cadwalladr uncovered an intriguing connection between Farage and Steve Bannon—who, before becoming Trump’s campaign manager, was a vice president at CA. Tracking down former CA employees, she persuaded a data scientist Christopher Wylie to become an anonymous source.

Through Cadwalladr and Wylie, The Great Hack starts to make a horrific kind of sense. Cambridge Analytica’s business depended on appropriating Facebook’s aggressive monetization of personal data to build what Wylie calls “a full-service propaganda machine.”

CA’s key insight was exploiting how Facebook makes money: not by protecting user privacy, but by stripping it. Roughly 90 percent of Facebook’s revenues come from advertising, the value of which depends on giving advertisers access to its users’ personal data. Advertisers then pay Facebook to place ads targeted to what it calls “customized audiences.” In short, Facebook’s existence depends on giving third parties access to its users’ hearts and minds.

One such means was a Facebook interface which allowed third-party app developers to reach out to Facebook users for permission to access a large chunk of their personal data—which, frighteningly, also allowed them to access data from the users’ Facebook friends. Another let users log into a website or app using their Facebook account, bypassing dedicated security measures. By these means, external developers could access such user information as name, gender, location, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political preferences, relationships, religious views, and online chat status—even messages users believed private.

Enter Cambridge academic Alexander Kogan and his company Global Science Research. In 2013, Wylie explains to Cadwalladr, he and Kogan created an app which prompted paid volunteers to answer questions for an allegedly private personality profile conducted for scientific research. Kogan then licensed from Facebook access to solicit its users for the survey.

Roughly 300,000 Facebook users responded. Kogan mined their data to stunning exponential effect: by using the unwitting users to penetrate their “friends”, he obtained detailed private information on an estimated 87 million Facebook users—which he then licensed back to CA. Thus armed, CA could sell its dark arts to political campaigns.

In sum, CA misused personal information from Facebook to target individual U.S. voters with personalized political propaganda designed to appeal to their hopes, fears, biases, and emotions. Asked by Cadwalladr how he feels about this now, Wylie admits on camera that it was a “grossly unethical experiment” which involved “playing with the psychology of an entire nation in the context of the democratic process.”

Facebook asserts that CA’s data mining violated its “terms of service” agreements with third parties—and, therefore, that this was not a security breach for which Facebook is responsible. But from 2015, Facebook was on notice that user data was being sold to malign effect.

In September of that year, Facebook employees began speculating internally that CA was weaponizing personal information mined from Facebook. In December 2015 the Guardian reported that CA was helping Cruz’s presidential campaign by exploiting psychological data harvested by Kogan from many millions of Facebook users.

In response, Facebook claims, it pressured Kogan and CA to remove all such data. Despite CA’s unverified assertion that the information had been deleted, it wasn’t.

Instead, both CA and Facebook perpetuated a three-year chain of self-serving but mutually-reinforcing lies, deceptions, non-disclosures, and legal maneuvers which enabled the gross misappropriation of this data to influence the Brexit referendum and the American election. They then proceeded to conceal the truth from Congress, the British Parliament, and the public until whistleblowers and reporters made the cover-up unsustainable. By the end of The Great Hack, audiences may see Mark Zuckerberg less as Alexander Nix’s victim than his cousin.

We experience ever more of this through Brittany Kaiser, a young woman who goes from human rights worker to executive in CA before grasping for redemption. She becomes the film’s most riveting character—a complicated person who serves as guide to the wormy heart of Cambridge Analytica while reliving her own corrosive slide into complicity and compromise.

But the inescapable warning of The Great Hack is that all of us are at risk of becoming droplets in a tsunami of hatred, fake news, and propaganda designed to turn social media into a Hobbesian pit of disinformation, dehumanization and paranoia. As individuals and participants in democracy, we are no longer safe. It is well to remember what Zuckerberg said in 2010: that privacy was no longer a “social norm.”

The Great Hack asks a vital question: What do we want to do about that?

Correction, June 24, 2019, 12:44 p.m.: The article originally stated that “With Wylie as an anonymous source, in December 2015 the Guardian reported that CA was helping Cruz’s presidential campaign by exploiting psychological data harvested by Kogan from many millions of Facebook users.” Wylie was not a source for that specific December 2015 Guardian report. The article has been edited to read: “In December 2015 the Guardian reported that CA was helping Cruz’s presidential campaign by exploiting psychological data harvested by Kogan from many millions of Facebook users.”

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.