The Great Hack
Netflix’s latest documentary reveals how social media can swing an election. (Image via Netflix)

‘The Great Hack’ Exposes the Dark Side of the Digital Age

We like to believe we’re immune to propaganda, but in the age of social media, it can be a lot more insidious than we expect.

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The Great Hack

We like to believe we’re immune to propaganda, but in the age of social media, it can be a lot more insidious than we expect.

Have you ever seen an ad so relevant to your life that you were convinced your phone or computer must be listening in? By now, most people know about “cookies” and how websites use them to personalize your online experience. They aren’t inherently sinister (after all, they enable you to store logins and online shopping carts), but the privacy problem arises when sites take that data and sell it to advertisers so they can show you targeted ads based on your interests. But “The Great Hack” explores a terrifying question: What if this kind of data could be used for true evil, like, say, undermining a country’s entire democratic process?

Netflix’s latest original delves into the seedy underbelly of data analytics,  examining how one company used data they collected from Facebook to target voters during the 2016 presidential election. Following key players in the Cambridge Analytica hacking scandal, the documentary uncovers how our data can be used to manipulate and influence our behavior without us ever realizing it’s been collected in the first place.

So, what even is Cambridge Analytica? On paper, it’s simply a data science and analytics company that provided various political campaigns with data-driven research to optimize their advertisements across social media. According to CEO Alexander Nix, they possessed “information” about target audiences and how to best reach them and could significantly boost your chances of winning. But according to former employee Chris Wylie, the company much more closely resembled a “full-service propaganda machine.”

 

“The Great Hack” seeks to unveil just how this well-oiled machine functioned by examining each of the major cogs. And it finds a goldmine in the form of whistleblower Brittany Kaiser. As a former higher-up at Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser provides insider testimony on just how the company manipulated the American public prior to the 2016 election.

After initially working for Ted Cruz’s campaign (and upgrading him from the worst rated candidate to the last man standing), Cambridge Analytica joined the Trump campaign and promised to make him win. How? By developing a psychological profile for every eligible voter in the U.S. and targeting them with individualized ads tailored to garner their support for Trump.

As Wylie and Kaiser reveal, the company distributed a basic personality-gauging survey to Facebook users. Taking the survey allowed Cambridge Analytica to build a profile based not only on takers’ responses but their status updates, likes and even private messages.

Furthermore, it granted the company access not just to survey-takers but their entire friend networks too. One random colleague or old acquaintance could agree to the survey, and your data could be stolen in the blink of an eye. After just a couple hundred thousand people submitted it, they were able to generate a model they could use to reliably predict the personality of every adult in the country.

Using their model and Facebook’s data, Cambridge Analytica started to run highly-targeted pro-Trump and anti-Clinton ads based on users’ profiles. But voters weren’t targeted equally; as Kaiser divulges, the bulk of the Trump campaign’s funds that went toward Facebook ads ($1 million, daily) targeted users whose data marked them as “persuadables.” These persuadables were the voters that were deemed to have the most potential to change their minds: those still on the fence between the candidates, who may have disliked Trump but distrusted Clinton, and who normally wouldn’t have even voted.

Rather than wasting their resources on users who were predicted to be fixed in their views, Cambridge Analytica focused on certain subsets of persuadables in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. These users were bombarded almost daily with heavily biased adverts that appeared objective, ranging from reports on “violent” Black Lives Matter protests, to stories of “dangerous illegals” and the creation of the epithet “Crooked Hillary.”

So, what’s the big deal? Candidates have lied and run smear campaigns on competitors since the dawn of politics. But as “The Great Hack” emphasizes, our social media feeds have become curated to only display agreeable news, and we take these fabricated online realities as objective truth. This lends us to potential manipulation at the hands of third parties who can shape the messages we receive while scrolling through those photos of friends and funny blurbs — all without us ever knowing we’ve been psychoanalyzed in the first place.

Perhaps the scariest part is that we have no idea what this data is. “The Great Hack” also features Professor David Carroll, who took advantage of U.K. law to subpoena Cambridge Analytica for their reported 5000 datapoints on him, but after a year of waiting to hear back, Cambridge Analytica merely confessed to the crime of withholding data and never released a hint.

Cambridge Analytica may no longer exist, but that won’t stop thousands of copycats from popping up, and it’s frightening to imagine that a company could take our personal information and use it against us without our knowledge. In fact, Kaiser even describes its “data science” as literal weapons-grade communication technology. And it’s bigger than just the U.S.; “The Great Hack” reveals just how many countries have used Cambridge Analytica’s services, from Trinidad and Tobago’s 2010 election to the Brexit referendum.

“The Great Hack” goes to great lengths to pose questions none of us even want to consider: Can we be manipulated? Does propaganda really work? And can we ever have a fair and free election again? One thing is for sure: The documentary is a must-watch for any voting citizen.

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