Issue 11, Semester 2, 2019
I recently (finally) got around to watching Netflix’s documentary on Cambridge Analytica (CA)’s use of personal data to persuade voters during the 2016 United States presidential election campaign, and the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union.
While I am sometimes sceptical of the quality of these sort of documentaries, and how well they represent the facts involved, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Great Hack is a well-produced documentary that goes to some lengths to flesh out both the events it depicts and the characters involved. In particular, its focus on the paradoxical character of Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned corporate whistleblower, is nothing short of fascinating, yet tinged with frustration. Kaiser started her political career as an idealistic intern on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and spent time as a human rights lobbyist for Amnesty International, before making the jump to Cambridge Analytica. Her place in the company seems to confound even Kaiser herself. She justifies working for CA on behalf of political figures like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (seemingly in spite of her liberal politics) because it allowed her to “actually see your impact”, in contrast to the frustrating world of human rights advocacy. Kaiser’s narrative comes across as somewhat self-serving and lacks an acknowledgment of her own role in enabling CA’s scandalous activities – something The Great Hack, in your honest author’s opinion, fails to adequately address.
Furthermore, while The Great Hack points fingers at CA, Leave.EU and other such organisations for persuading voters through highly targeted and often misleading advertising, it only briefly acknowledges the agency of those who are targeted. After all, one must be persuaded in order for this campaigning to have any effect, and the mere presence of an advertisement imploring the viewer to “Defeat Crooked Hillary”, or warn a British voter of the far-fetched threat of Turkey joining the EU, does not alone cause voters to decide one way or the other.
Nevertheless, The Great Hack is an important reminder of just how much information you have willingly handed over to Facebook, Google and any innumerate number of tech companies, in return for services promising to help us connect to one another in a world of technologically enhanced friendship and communication. Despite its flaws, it’s well worth your time.
Sam is a Third Year JD Student and the 2019 De Minimis Sub-Editor.