‘The Great Hack’The Fightback Begins in the Brexit-Trump Culture Wars
Film-maker Sheridan Flynn on the new Netflix documentary following Carole Cadwalladr’s ongoing mission for the truth about how our data is being weaponised to change the world
Last week saw the passing of the great Dutch actor Rutger Hauer who famously played Roy, a rogue android in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner.
We mourned his death as a machine on film, then as a man in reality. In his famous closing scene in Blade Runner, we project our human emotions onto a dying machine and, in doing so, we’re forced to question what it is that makes us human.
Today, we know that emojis are simply emotions distilled into digital bits – likes, joy, fear, love, anger. They underpin the data that informs advertisers on how to influence our buying behaviour and, in turn, they are the currency that power tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s a relationship most of us are comfortable enough with to tolerate: surrender some basic information for the convenience of free connectivity. Besides the odd intrusive ad, what’s the worst that could happen?
How about Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far-right, the spread of disinformation and the erosion of democracy?
It’s time to ask ourselves: is it still worth it?
The Great Hack attempts to confront one of the most abstract and complex scandals of our age – the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data hack. How dark forces hacked our personal information and weaponised our data to manipulate us and ultimately sway elections.
Cambridge Analytica claimed to have five thousand data points which were used to predict the personality of every adult in the United States. This data was used to form targeted digital ads aimed at voters as part of an information warfare campaign designed to sow discord and elect Donald Trump. Without people’s knowledge or consent, hundreds of thousands of Americans’ personal Facebook information was used to create these data points. Data which was controlled by Cambridge Analytica. This is the core of Professor David Carroll’s quest in The Great Hack. To recover his personal information from the now disgraced data mining company. In summarising his case, Carroll’s solicitor Ravi Naik poignantly states that data rights are human rights.
The film opens with former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser at the Burning Man festival. She ceremoniously scrawls her old employer’s name onto a piece of firewood, ties on a pair of whistles and we watch as the amber flames light up her face. It’s a crude metaphor for a whistle-blower attempting to absolve their sins. Given what we already know about Cambridge Analytica’s activities as a facilitator of information warfare, it’s safe to assume the opposite may also be true – that Kaiser sets fire to the world around her and looks on slightly detached.
To win this war we need great storytelling, great cinema, great art. Brexit and Trump ultimately won on emotions – and this is where the response lies.
In contrast to Kaiser, David Carroll solemnly trudges through Brooklyn.
He seems like a man heavy with loss. Haunted by the memory of early techno utopianism, all of its promises of freedom and what it became in 2016. Images of Crooked Hillary, Alex Jones and domestic civil unrest fill the screen in a chaotic nightmare sequence. “How did the dream of the connected word tear us apart?,” he asks.
Carroll’s scrutinises the terms and conditions of his kids’ iPads before they’re allowed to download an app. “Do you really want them to be able to read your messages?” he asks his daughter. Carroll understands the implications of information warfare, its effects on our minds, and where it can lead us. We get the impression that his worst nightmares have already come true.
Throughout the film, we’re hit by the trauma of reliving a sweaty Nigel Farage grinning on the night of the EU Referendum in 2016 and Trump’s surreal win a few months later. Followed by the unrelenting rise of the far-right and Le Pen, Hungry’s Orban and Brazil’s Bolsonaro punching the air in victory. We haven’t seen the bottom yet and it’s hard to fathom how we ended up here so quickly.
Investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr dumps a huge clear plastic Ikea box full of notes and papers onto her kitchen table. “This is the exciting box,” she says. “I’ve been investigating Cambridge Analytica and how that ties to the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union.”
Like plot points in a heist movie, she lists off Farage, Andy Wigmore, Steve Bannon, Brexit, Trump, and Facebook. As she leafs through her notebooks, we see a photo of UKIP mega donor Arron Banks, his associates and Trump giving the thumbs-up in front of a gold-plated door in his eponymous New York tower. This simple image of power and wealth seems to contextualise everything that’s happened since 2016.
We know Cadwalladr’s on the right track. If only because her investigations have provoked the ire of Banks who, for the past two years, has relentlessly trolled her on Twitter, issuing threats and instigating legal action against her personally. Even the Russian Embassy has chipped in to back up Banks as swarms of bots frequently amplify the hate against her. The burden of dealing with everyday propaganda clearly has a palpable effect. Like a war photographer returning home from an assignment, the trauma of conflict is clear in her voice. The obvious difference here is that the battleground is always with us.
This is one of a few moments when we glimpse the emotional fallout of this great violation. The tone of the film palpably shifts. The data, hacks, posh white blokes in suits are pushed aside and we’re listening to the sincere testimony of a real person. We have a crime scene and perpetrators, but we learn little about the victims.
The Great Hack is an important and clear exposition of the most important data hack in history. But, it’s a conventional documentary and the structure is familiar. It’s make-up of talking heads, motion graphics and observational sequences are well-used. At almost two hours, there’s a lot of information to absorb.
Surrender some basic information for the convenience of free connectivity… It’s time to ask ourselves: is it still worth it?
But, facts alone aren’t enough. We’re in the midst of an information war and the frontline is firmly drawn in our minds. To win this war we need great storytelling, great cinema, great art. Brexit and Trump ultimately won on emotions – and this is where the response lies. To tell better stories, to create better visions of ourselves, to dream better lives.
Rutger Hauer’s character Roy is a machine, yet he delivers an unforgettable closing monologue. His ultimate aim is to leave his mark on the world. Almost four decades later and we’re still quoting Roy. Why? I bet former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix knows the answer.
‘The Great Hack’ is available now on Netflix