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‘We are now the commodity’: on the latest documentary, The Great Hack

Sometime last month, I reconnected with an old friend over phone. Conversation veered to a common friend I had not seen or spoken to in over a decade. Soon after I cut the call, the same common friend showed up as a “friend suggestion” on Facebook; just like that, for the first time since I created my account in 2008. I was sufficiently spooked by what either seemed like an outrageous coincidence, or evidence that our phone conversation was under some sort of surveillance.

The Great Hack, a documentary about the infamous Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal which hit headlines early last year, gives viewers a better understanding of why there are no outrageous coincidences anymore. Filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehan Noujaim keep the focus on the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, which declared bankruptcy in 2018 after the company was investigated for, first, getting access to Facebook profiles of American and British citizens, and then bombarding users with content that would help the company swing opinion in, both, the US presidential elections and Brexit.

Now, at a macro-level, the documentary’s talking about the challenges any democracy faces in the social media age, given how no election is sacrosanct now. We see how Cambridge Analytica identified ‘persuadables’ in key American states — people who didn’t have any particular political allegiance or belief. This list of persuadables was created by getting users on Facebook to take innocuous personality tests, which helped the company create a profile of the users. Then, the persuadables were bombarded with fake news packaged as viral content. The documentary filmmakers would like us to believe it’s highly likely that Donald Trump won the presidency primarily by manipulating voters. The larger implication is that our social media accounts are tools in the hands of smart people who specialise in data mining to help a candidate win an election, irrespective of our political beliefs.

Then there’s the immediate concern: What does it really mean to the average user? Firstly, there’s the realisation that nothing is private anymore. The Great Hack reminds us, through a tight narrative and the accounts of its three principal characters, that everything about us in the public domain — our opinions, pictures, and even our friendships — is fair game for corporations to misuse for their ulterior goals. As one of the show’s protagonists, David Carroll, says, “We are now the commodity”.

Carroll is an American professor who sued Cambridge Analytica in the UK in order to get evidence of what they did with the data they had on him. Another important character is Carol Cadwalladr, a veteran journalist working for the The Observer who, when she first started investigating Cambridge Analytica, was attacked with viral memes about her to discredit her work. The final and most fascinating character of the documentary is Brittany Kaiser — a high-ranking employee of Cambridge Analytica who turned whistleblower, and had to live with the consequences of her actions.

Through testimonies and interviews of these three people, Amer and Noujaim manage to craft a documentary that’s not only informative and thrilling, but one that also has a human connect. They also make use of smart visual devices (CGI-created pixels emanating from people’s phones and tablets, for example), which is also displayed in the trippy end credits you should definitely stick around for.

The Great Hack is now streaming on Netflix.

This column helps you navigate online (and offline) television, a world of endless options.

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