Portrait of Persuasion: The Great Hack

I maintain a willful ignorance around my own privacy and data. So what if an app developer buys my data? What are they going to do with my hearts and likes? After all — I am not stupid enough to be manipulated into voting this way or that, or not voting at all. Except, maybe I am. This is the deep-seeding doubt that Jehane Noujam and Karim Amer’s documentary THE GREAT HACK casts on its viewer.

When we were a few months out from the 2016 election, personality quizzes circulated Facebook: What Disney princess are you? Do you have royal blood? What kind of dog are you according to your zodiac sign? Inquiring minds want to know. We didn’t know then, but we know now: Those quizzes were used to create personality profiles. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that claimed the 2016 Presidential election and Brexit, scraped data from millions — culled from a mix of playful Facebook quizzes, dynamically paired with other data — from credit reports and health records, to music playlists and viewing preferences. They developed psychographic profiles of almost every person in the United states based on levels of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (O.C.E.A.N.), and then used Facebook analytics to develop targeted content to target swing voters according to the precise emotional cues that motivate them around hot button issues.

As the definitive primer on Cambridge Analytica, The Great Hack brings to life the invisible algorithms and data collections that now define our reality. Technology is not neutral. While algorithms do not have to contend with ethics, people do. In this way, The Great Hack is a treatise on the amoral reality of technology and presents a terrifying portrait of persuasion.

What happens when we as moral creatures interact with an amoral reality that is constantly embedded in our everyday behavior? At what point does that amorality shape our morality?

These questions are explored through a series of characters, notably some of the most influential figures behind Cambridge Analytica. Christopher Wylie, the fuchsia haired gay, vegan Canadian chief data analyst who built Cambridge Analytical micro-targeting tools and then blew the whistle of the firm’s practices and their role in Brexit and the 2016 Presidential election. Then there’s the lesser-known Brittany Kaiser, a former business development executive and a key part of the inner circle of Cambridge Analytica, friends with the billionaire Mercers (the money behind the firm), as well as its former President Steve Bannon.

Kaiser operates amidst willful contradictions. After working on Obama’s social media team during the 2008 campaign, she got bored with social justice work and accepted an invitation from Alexander Nix (Cambridge Analytica CEO) to “get her drunk to steal her (liberal) secrets.” Smitten with his British charm, Kaiser quickly dons a posh wardrobe, cowboy boots, and an NRA card — all to play a part, and see how far she could take it. Kaiser vacillates between performing regret for the camera around her work with Cambridge Analytica, and discounting the influence the firm had at all. People make their own choices when they go (or not) to the ballot box, she asserts. Well after Wylie’s whistle blow, Kaiser — saddled with the shame of her associations and the financial consequences of being cast out of her network — gives herself credit for “doing the right thing” to come forward to help testify in Congressional hearings.

15 months out from the 2020 election, we need to get real with ourselves: Is a free and fair election ever possible again, now that our data is being traded as the world’s most valuable commodity, at rates higher than oil? Can our online presence actually be used to manipulate us into making real-life choices with real-life consequences? Does “free will” stand a chance in the velocity by which data is being created, collected, analyzed and deployed?

Meanwhile on Instagram, everyone from Drake to Gaga, Mindy Kaling to the Jonas Brothers are uploading selfies using FaceApp — a technology that uses neural networks to manipulate photos to look like you — but 30 years older, in a different gender, or with a smile on your face. FaceApp is based in Russia and has been downloaded by 14 million users.

Technology made us a false promise. We were promised a feeling of connection. But Facebook and Instagram are deliberately designed to fail. We obsessively check our feeds precisely because our online interactions — the likes and the hearts and the comments — never satiate our desire for connection. This is why we quickly tap to accept any terms and conditions selling off our data, and their ability to be wielded against us, in exchange for a few fun pics or games. We know that Facebook collaborated with Cambridge Analytica to manipulate our data. We know that there is no government regulation preventing them from doing it again. And yet, we don’t change our behavior. Why?

Shortly after her testimony before Congress, Brittany Kaiser receives a text from Alexander Nix. She gleefully shows the camera crew. Nix congratulates her; sympathizes with her on how hard it must have been to testify. She is so happy to have his attention.

Technology leaves us in a desirous, morally ambiguous state. It leaves us yearning for anyone who seeks to command our attention. But the buzz only lasts a few seconds, and we always come back for another hit. With time, our capacity to make moral decisions is steadily eroded by our willful attitude towards our own data.

Our future rests not on the defense of facts, but on the instability of our feelings. Facts may be unassailable, but feelings aren’t.

The Great Hack is a Netflix Original Documentary.

Provocative reflections on culture, now.

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