Great documentaries strike a cord that reverberates back into the world, leaving a mark on audiences in a way very few other art mediums are capable of achieving. So if the legal threat dangling over Netflix pertaining to its newest film, “The Great Hack” which has just premiered today (July 24) on the streaming site, is any indication of its successful dissemination of truth, then perhaps we are in for a load of trouble.
The film takes on the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal that got even the most ardent Facebook users to reconsider their usage on the site. Is it worth posting pictures of your burgeoning tomato garden if it meant that your data – you know, all the clicks you’ve made, the things you’ve liked, the places you’ve geotagged, and more – is then used against you? Specifically, the film by Oscar-nominated documentarians Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim details how covert data-mining by Cambridge Analytica, co-founded by Steve Bannon years before he became a household name, was instrumental in both the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the success of the Brexit campaign.
How you may ask? You’ll have to watch the film for the dirty details because it’s complicated to say the least. And before you brag about how you would never give permission to any company to use your data off the social media site, there's a loophole: a personality quiz used by 270,000 Facebook users allowed Cambridge Analytica to take the information of every person that user had friended. In layman’s terms, if even just one of your friends participated in the quiz, your information was potentially compromised without your knowledge and, more than likely, against your will. Don’t worry though, you’re in the company of some 87 million others who were similarly hacked.
Scary stuff, right? It gets worse and weirder. “The Great Hack” exposes this scandal with the help of professor David Carroll and British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, but it is the footage of whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, whom we follow from pools in Thailand to committee meetings in London, that is most compelling. Once an intern under Obama, she became an integral member of the Trump campaign, justifying her switch to the political right because of the money she couldn’t turn down. After a change of heart, she exposed their process for influencing the election using highly targeted marketing campaigns on, you guessed it, Facebook.
The other major bombshells include the undercover footage of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix bragging about the company’s illegal practices and Kaiser’s ominous travel diary culminating in an interview by Robert Mueller’s team. For a topic that is virtual and virtually impossible to translate into a visual story, “The Great Hack” accomplishes two things: it explains the details of this dense and complicated issue in a palatable way, and it adds a compelling human-interest facet to an otherwise clear-cut story about the real dangers and lack of oversight in the digital space.
The film lulls near the end, spinning its wheels with the same foreboding vernacular that struck us from its opening lines. It’s not a film for light watching while you browse the web; it requires a very focused viewing to follow the complex and thorny saga of all the ways we are being watched and influenced by the seemingly innocent screens we carry in our pockets. The material may be boring to some, and sure, it’s not an exhilarating subject like rich housewives or unsolved murders, but it’s the first to detail a scandal that should be on your radar, begging the question: now that Pandora’s webpage has been opened, will things ever be the same.