The audience anger that The Great Hack seeks to inspire is not misplaced. For nearly two decades, we’ve willfully — even if we didn’t always realize it — given up bits and pieces of our identities to the small clutch of companies that dominate our lives, online and off.
You know their names: Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix, Twitter. But on Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm was revealed as the potential lynchpin to the unlikely successes of the Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns.
The “great hack” in question that Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim attempt to explain is Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook to build “psychographic” profiles of every voter in the countries where the company operated: first Britain, and the United States shortly after. The company gathered its information simply, but seductively, with links to a “free online personality quiz” that would give Cambridge Analytica access to each test-taker’s page and, in turn, all of those users’ friends’ pages. As one former disgruntled employee said, it took just a few hundred quizzes to map tens of millions of U.S. voters.
The film’s main figure is Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica executive who later became a whistleblower for investigations in both countries, and she says the game was to find “persuadables.” Those users, especially the ones in, say, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, would then have their Facebook accounts deluged by aggressive content meant to rile them up or dissuade them from voting at all.
Cambridge Analytica’s activities, which have been extensively revealed by investigative journalism to the point where the company no longer exists, are certain to upset anyone who was on the losing end of the Brexit or presidential votes. Yet Kaiser, a former Barack Obama social media aide who says she drifted toward right-wing politics out of financial necessity before deciding to quit Cambridge and rehabilitate herself, is a bit unreliable. We see her frolicking at Burning Man and lounging at a high-end resort “somewhere in Thailand” before she starts talking. When she does, she seems remorseful of the products she helped sell and the destructive results they wrought, but only to a point: the choices of Brexit or Trump, she points out, were still up to the voters.
Amer and Noujaim, who last teamed up for 2013’s Oscar-nominated The Square, unfortunately seem more interested in rehabilitating Kaiser than peeling back more layers on Cambridge Analytica. It’s a choice that both lengthens The Great Hack but leaves important — even well-known — details on the floor. Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the shadowy Long Island investors who bankrolled much of Cambridge Analytica’s work, are not mentioned at all, even as the film stretches to two hours. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 digital media director who’s now running the president’s re-election campaign, is only referenced indirectly in a title card.
The film also weaves in David Carroll, a professor who tries to sue for access to the profile Cambridge Analytica built on him, and Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist who broke many of the big scoops about the company. But whenever it seems they’re going to uncover a juicy new detail, Amer and Noujaim yank back to Kaiser’s latest hand-wringing, usually from the suite of some high-end hotel. The documentary’s resulting argument is thus tantalizing, but unsatisfying.
While Amer and Noujaim make an undercooked case, at least they make it stylishly with soaring drone shots, animated tweets and Facebook posts, and representing data mining through a disintegration effect that looks a bit like snap the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
Cambridge Analytica may be gone, but Facebook, the engine that powered its dark arts, remains very much alive, teeming with other garbage content designed to provoke our worst political impulses. It’s assuring to know that there are journalists like Cadwalladr trying to go deeper, and that a figure like Kaiser is trying to redeem herself, but disappointing that The Great Hack is more committed to retreading a story that’s been told better elsewhere. Why not take big swings at the giant tech companies that continue to swallow us alive?