The new Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” begins with David Carroll, a digital media professor in the United Kingdom, asking a class of students whether they’d ever seen an ad on Facebook that convinced them their devices were spying on them, perhaps an eerie digital reference to a conversation that happened offline, its timing too uncanny to be coincidental.
Most of their hands go up, as would many of ours. The reality, Carroll explains, is even more sinister. The devices don’t need to listen, because social media companies’ algorithms have already learned enough from our interactions with their networks to both anticipate and manipulate our behavior.
Carroll is a central figure in what became known as the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. When he learned last year that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, had collected his personal data, he sued the company to find out what it knew about him.
The version of this story that played out in the United States is better-known, immortalized in countless memes showing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, wide-eyed and pale-faced while being grilled in the Senate over revelations that Cambridge Analytica had shadily obtained and profited from Facebook user data.
“The Great Hack” — directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, the latter an Oscar nominee for the 2013 documentary “The Square” — follows key players in the saga. Joining Carroll are Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative reporter who first uncovered the story; Brittany Kaiser, a former high-ranking Cambridge employee-turned whistleblower who emerges as a deeply conflicted protagonist; and Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor horrified by how the platform had been twisted.
We can read the film’s title in two ways. First, the specific scandal at hand: Cambridge Analytica, a company with a history of using data to influence voter behavior in international elections, played a key hidden role in both the U.K. Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election after it acquired information on nearly 90 million Facebook users.
The firm deployed simple quiz apps that granted it access to the data of anyone who used it, plus that of their friends. With that information, Cambridge was able to identify “persuadables” (swing voters) in the Brexit campaign and filled their newsfeeds with enough misleading ads to tip the vote to leave.
It later deployed the same strategy on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign, targeting just enough users in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to hand him a narrow electoral victory. Cambridge Analytica also claims to have coined Trump campaign terms like “lock her up” and “Crooked Hillary,” which filled ads in persuadable voters’ Facebook feeds.
Once this all became public, it seemed as if the public might perform an overdue reckoning on the havoc we’ve allowed Facebook and the other data Goliaths to wreak on our privacy, our democracy and our planet. Yeah, about that.
Zuckerberg’s ashen expression during the hearings bore the weight of more than this one scandal, and deservedly so. He was there to explain how his mid-2000s dorm-room project became, over the course of a dozen years, the churning vortex into which all human connection, digital commerce and electoral politics have been event-horizoned. The caption of my favorite meme from that day: “That face when you just wanted a faster way to rank girls by looks and ended up installing a fascist government in the most powerful country on earth.”
“The Great Hack” understands that the story is bigger than just Cambridge Analytica, or even Facebook. The even greater hack referenced in the title is how the dream of a connected world became a dystopian nightmare of surveillance capitalism, hacked elections and predatory social media.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission issued Facebook a record fine of nearly $5 billion for mishandling its users’ data in ways that allowed Cambridge Analytica to acquire and exploit it. Did we all #DeleteFacebook in response? Of course not. The day the FTC announced the fine — a mosquito bite on the wrist for a company that reports more than triple that amount in earnings each quarter — Facebook’s stock price soared.