Netflix's 'The Great Hack' review: Should you watch?

Documentary about Cambridge Analytica scandal paints grim picture of reality of our time; we, the people, are a commodity, a product to be exploited

Directors: Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer

Score: 4/5

The next time you browse through your Facebook or Twitter feed, analyse the posts you see. For the very post you like or dislike, share or retweet may unwittingly shape your digital identity. The Netflix documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal -- The Great Hack -- paints a grim picture of the reality of our days: we, the people, are a commodity and our digital life a product meant to be exploited.

Cambridge Analytica, to the uninitiated, came to light months before Donald Trump’s historic win over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election. The success of the Trump campaign, built on the success of the Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, was by and large led by Cambridge Analytica which mined data from millions of Americans to create a web of personality indices for every eligible voter in the country. This enabled Cambridge Analytica to provide tailor-made content to everyone who could be “persuaded” to vote one way or another, vanquishing a voter’s sense of agency.

You may have heard of the legend of Georg Faust, a man whose desire for knowledge was so immense, he sold his soul to the devil, and died for it. The Faustian myth is perhaps an apt analogy for the situation people across the world face today. Increasingly humans are becoming dependent on technology, so addicted to its conveniences, that they “sell their souls” – in the form of their data and online habits – overlooking any and all risks that it poses.

That is what The Great Hack really deals with. Beyond the Senate hearings, beyond Brexit, beyond Donald Trump, The Great Hack showcases how a nation’s fortunes can be changed just through a bunch of tailored posts on social media.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was first broken in December 2015 by The Guardian reporter Harry Davies, driven by the company's handling of the Ted Cruz campaign. Since then, reports on the scandal have been handled by others, particularly Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian, who was driven by whistleblower Christopher Wylie's testimony on the seedy underbelly of the data giant.

It goes in-depth into the entire political scandal, following primarily Brittany Kaiser, a key person in Cambridge Analytica and a cornerstone of the Trump campaign, and David Carroll, a US citizen who invoked UK laws on consumer data to try and get the data on him that was mined for profit. 

While Carroll is perceived as a sympathetic figure who is simply fighting for what should be a common right, the documentary is far less merciful with Kaiser, who went from an idealistic intern in the Obama campaign to someone basically seduced into the right-wing propaganda machine that propelled Trump and now fuels several major democracies across the world. Even though Kaiser did go and start the #OwnYourData campaign, she never really comes off as a person who someone could trust to be consistent with her own beliefs, despite a hard-to-ignore testimony before the UK Parliament.

“Psyops” is a term used in the documentary, a technique used by the militaries of the world to manipulate and convince people to act a certain way when violence is not preferable. For all intents and purposes, what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did for the Trump campaign and may have done for Brexit in the Leave.EU campaign, is just that. By using unassuming “personality test” games many of us use as a joke, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica harvested potentially tens of thousands of peoples’ data. Perhaps, the lack of strong data protection laws in the US empowered them to keep users – potential voters – in the dark about the data they were mining.

But for all its solid presentation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, The Great Hack falls short of presenting an argument that closes the case on ways to control this behemoth – a US $1 trillion a year industry. As Carroll says the common thought that internet-enabled devices snoop into your lives, but in reality it creates a profile through the simplest of actions.

To fathom how far down the rabbit hole goes, watch this documentary. It provides an unfiltered look into the goings-on of how the world's democracies were compromised by an obsessive need to market a person or an idea, and how the medium that was meant to bring people together has become a weapon to tear us apart.

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