A new Netflix documentary shows how a company used your data to elect Trump and pass Brexit

Darcy Reeder
Aug 8 · 5 min read
Screenshot from The Great Hack / Netflix

Are you a persuadable? Do the ads and memes on your Facebook feed affect how you spend? How you vote?

Netflix’s new documentary “The Great Hack” reveals how British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data — even from users who didn’t opt in — to sway voters toward Donald Trump and Brexit.

Cambridge Analytica bragged it had 5,000 data points on every American voter. The company used the data to target persuadables — undecided voters in key voting precincts who might go either way if shown propaganda — to push them towards voting for Trump.

I don’t consider myself a persuadable, but at the same time, the ads I see on Facebook are clearly tailored for me.

I don’t even attempt to hide my data. On Facebook and elsewhere, I (over)share that I’m a queer, cis, Jewish, vegan mama who wants a better world.

Here are the first ten ads I see on my Facebook feed. (What do you see on yours?)

  1. “The Meal Delivery Service That Has Millennials Ditching Takeout”
  2. A “New York Times” story about a giant squid.
  3. “How This Personalized Vitamin Service Made Me Believe In The Power Of Supplements”
  4. “Sis, it’s time to check in with YOU” — a photo of a woman of color and a link to assess my breast/ovarian cancer risk.
  5. Harry Potter-themed colored pencils, with shades such as MAD-EYE MAROONY and ALBUS PLUMBLEDORE.
  6. A video of an “award-winning” razor, with a closeup of toe hair-shaving.
  7. Seriously, another brand of “personalized vitamins?”
  8. That razor again! This time, a woman of color shaves her bikini line.
  9. One of those services where they mail you “clean ingredients” so you can sorta, kinda cook.
  10. My favorite! The woman-owned leggings company with the most diverse cast of models I’ve ever seen (all sizes! all races! wheelchair! amputee!) I actually watch the whole video and read the comments, letting myself daydream I live in an intersectional feminist utopia. Then I notice the ad calls the women girls, and my dream bubble pops. But the leggings have functional pockets!

Our Curated Realities

Any time you pay to put an ad on Facebook, you can target your audience based on age, gender, location, and interests. I helped my husband make an ad for his Dungeons & Dragons business, and we were able to select to show the ad only to people known to like D&D.

Makes sense. Why would we want to show it to people who don’t play D&D? And why would people who don’t play D&D want to see the ad? Win-win, right?

I like that my ads are tailored to me. I use Adblock for the rest of the internet, so I would never be able to deal with all of these Facebook ads if they weren’t somewhat based on my data. And the algorithm doesn’t totally have me nailed down. I don’t shave, for instance (no matter how many times they show me that razor ad).

So, until watching “The Great Hack,” I thought all of this talk about data privacy was just people being annoyed that, yes, Facebook algorithms “knew” they might be interested in underwear for when they’re on their period.

But now I understand that, just as the persuadables have never seen ads for period panties, I’ve never seen the right-wing propaganda persuadables see every day.

I knew my Democracy Now! and others’ Fox News would feed our different worldviews. But I didn’t know, even when we all choose Facebook, that our media is just as divided.

Because Facebook ads are tailored to each person, we literally cannot see what others see. How can we attempt to understand our political differences if we don’t even have access to each other’s curated realities?

It’s no wonder Trump voters keep talking about fake news. They’ve seen lots of it, sandwiched between cat videos and grainy photos of anniversary dinners. They saw fake news because Trump’s team hired Cambridge Analytica to show it to them.

The film informs us, “Donald Trump’s 2016 digital campaign director claimed to have run 5.9 million visual ads on Facebook, in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s 66,000.”

Using Data to Manipulate People Online

Part of the Cambridge Analytica political propaganda strategy is to produce sharable content. Get one persuadable to like your memes, and they’ll disseminate your propaganda for free. So ads won’t always come to you in the form of clearly labeled sponsored content.

Wedged between the 10 ads I listed, I see posts from my friends and groups: 10 heartwarming photos of families and babies, six posts about writing, two movie recommendations, and six current events posts. None of the posts about current events are memes. They’re all long-form articles, mostly about human rights violations.

My Facebook feed is a bubble of empathy and information, with a side of leggings. I want this for everyone.

No one wants to think of themselves as a persuadable. But corporations may be manipulating you in ways other than how you’d expect.

“Donald Trump’s 2016 digital campaign director claimed to have run 5.9 million visual ads on Facebook, in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s 66,000.”

When we understand the stakes of using data to sway elections, it makes more sense why, more and more, data rights are being framed as human rights.

In sales presentation audio included in the documentary, Cambridge Analytica admitted to undertaking 10 national presidential/prime minister campaigns each year. So, yes, they’ve worked to make Brexit happen and to get Trump elected. They also worked to sway the vote in other countries, including Malaysia, Lithuania, Romania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Trinidad and Tobago.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL created a fake grassroots campaign to convince people likely to oppose their client to stay home instead. Sales presentation audio reveals how they worked to win the 2010 election of Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Trinidad and Tobago by trying to “increase apathy” among young, Black potential voters. Of course, they didn’t call it apathy — their “Do So!” campaign promoted not voting as cool and anti-establishment.

Trinidad and Tobago clip from The Great Hack via YouTube

I have friends in the United States who don’t vote as a way of protesting a broken electoral system. Watching the story of this election in Trinidad and Tobago, I couldn’t help wondering if the seeds of my friends’ resistance came from propaganda, too. The same nefarious tactics, ongoing even before the ease of Facebook data.

At the end of the film, Professor David Carroll remarks, “So I can’t help but ask myself, ‘Can I be manipulated? Can you?’”

My husband’s got a strategy to deal with all the sponsored posts on Facebook. Every single ad he sees, he clicks those three little dots at the top right, selects Report Ad, and then chooses “Offensive” as his reason.

“All advertising is offensive,” he contends. He’s not wrong.

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Darcy Reeder

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Empathy for the win! Top Writer— Essays on Feminism, Culture, Relationships, Sexuality, Veganism, Politics, and Parenting. ko-fi.com/darcyreeder She/Her/They

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