Watch this as soon as you can…
Cambridge Analytica were recently caught out misusing data of 87 million US internet users to create targeted ads. It is perhaps the most serious data breach in modern history, and Netflix’s The Great Hack chronicles this terrifying story. Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim have created a well-documented film that constantly holds the reader’s attention, and uses the testimony of experts, journalists, and whistleblowers to piece together the scandal from the wreckage.
Despite the thousands of articles, podcasts, and news programmes that have covered this developing story, and the fact I have been following attentively, I still came out of this film learning something new. Ultimately, teaching is what all documentaries should do. This film is enlightening, and widens the scope of vision so that the more of the bigger picture can be seen. There is a lot to this story, and the film brings them all together in an easily digestible manner. It is very good at making connections, linking the recent political events of Nigeria with the election of Donald Trump. It portrays the meddling in Nigeria’s politics as almost like a practice run for what happened in Britain and America in 2016, emphasising that the use of data in this way has been a long time coming.
The visual imagery used throughout the film develops this theme of inevitability further. It depicts the world as, rather than built up of atoms and molecules, built of pixels, bits and data. Everyone David Carroll, a professor who mounted a legal challenge against Cambridge Analytica in order to see the data they had on him, walks past is on their phone. Effectively, the digital imagery suggests that the pixels and data are leaking from their phones uncontrollably and constantly. Carroll also remarks that nobody ever reads the terms and conditions of their favourite sites, and how shocking it would be to read through them. We are letting this happen blindly.
I do not know whether this was a conscious decision, or an accidental irony, but the fact this is a Netflix film also draws attention to society’s inertia regarding this issue. Netflix knows an awful lot about our behaviour and interests too. If this irony was commented on during the film, it would have strengthened Amer and Noujaim’s argument further. Perhaps they did not know where their film would end up, though.
Of course, the film does not just blame our collective sleepwalking for this data disaster. Alexander Nix and Mark Zuckerberg do not give interviews, so their side of the story is told through what is available publicly. From what is available, they inevitably fill the role of villain in this story. You could argue Brittany Kaiser also fills that role, but her portrayal is quite complex. It is a testimony to the unbiased and impartial nature of this documentary that you never know what to think about Kaiser. Carroll has a very cynical of her decision to whistleblow, but she does appear remorseful in some places. Whether the audience believes the sincerity of this remorse is up to them.
Further, this film is impartial politically. It does not make any judgements on whether Brexit is the correct course for the UK or not, or whether Clinton should have become the first female US president or not. Its main concern is democracy, its integrity, and how data is being used in such a way that threatens democracy itself. The film uses a good five minutes of its 139 minute run time to highlight Kaiser’s point that Cambridge Analytica are effectively using weapons-grade technology. It is used to make the very compelling case for the danger world democracy is in right now.
Using many efficient techniques available due to the medium of film, this documentary fits a complex story, with much technical jargon, spanning over a decade, and encompassing the entire planet, into an engaging and easy-to-follow narrative. Making it so easy to understand allows the horrifying nature of the scandal, and its disturbing implications for the future, to really hit home. The film never tries to convince you to delete your Facebook account; it is so well-integrated into our society that avoiding it is impossible. It does try to make us more conscious of the rights we lack, and how we are being exploited for profit. We are in a new world, and understanding its dangers is probably the best chance we’ve got.