The Great Hack (2019)

The Great Hack

THE GREAT HACK is a terrific and frightening documentary film about Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaigns in America.

Film Review by Roger Paradiso

–Facebook ads used by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 totaled 66,000.

–Facebook ads used by the Donald Trump campaign in 2016 totaled 5.9 million.

For those of you who are wondering how Donald Trump and his corrupt team stole the last election, this is a good film to see. When you watched all those districts turn red in middle America that election night in 2016, didn’t you shiver and wonder how that happened? It seemed like it was a video game or a reality show, didn’t it? Well it was.

The Great Hack is a terrific and frightening documentary film about Cambridge Analytica and the Trump (and Cruz) campaigns in America. The film also deals with the Brexit voter referendum in the United Kingdom. In both cases it shows how they played dirty tricks to swing public opinion towards their clients. We all know the sad results. The film documents how some of it happened.

Thanks to three incredible citizens and one whistleblower, we see how a nightmare of Orwellian proportions has occurred. Is it a crime? The courageous filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim think so, and most of us would think so too.

The film starts with David Carroll, a media professor in New York, bringing a lawsuit against the British company Cambridge Analytica. He simply wants his data back from this Orwellian brainwashing cabal.

His point is that he has not consented to having his human rights, data rights included, used for any purpose without this permission. As Mr. Carroll is bringing his suit to the London courts, an investigative reporter for The Guardian based in London, Carole Cadwalladr, has also been on the trail. You know this is a documentary, by the way, because no screenplay would ever give a character that last name. That’s the beauty of any documentary, and particularly this one—it’s at its best when showing real people talking about and reacting to real events. 

There is no preaching or manipulative love story to get in the way of this horror film of brainwashing and mind control. There are no weapons of mass destruction or slash and burn scenes. The real story is scary enough to keep anyone up at night. 

Cadwalladr and The Guardian have been following Cambridge Analytica for years, aided by her own source, former employee Christopher Wylie, who rats out the rats who made a fortune manipulating voters. “Cambridge Analytica is a full-service propaganda machine,” says Wylie. “You shouldn’t win by cheating.” Cheating is what Wylie contends his bosses were doing to elections around the globe.

Cambridge Analytica was busy electing many dubious or authoritarian characters across the globe including our very own Donald J. Trump and family. The tech giants and companies like Cambridge Analytica are pushing the boundaries of marketing and advertising norms. Let’s be clear, governments and corporations have for years been massaging our brains. Television was the perfect advertising machine. It is now being replaced by the computer and cell phones, which are far less regulated in the wild west of the internet. 

The techniques now used in serious areas like politics have indeed become weapons capable of turning “the fence voters” towards their clients. These unsuspecting citizens are called persuadables, and are bombarded with manipulative propaganda. They become brainwashed citizens who are persuaded to vote for clients of dangerous companies like Cambridge Analytica who represent sketchy political candidates.

The two bad guys shown on film repping this evil company are Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and CFO Julian Wheatland. Their posture is, of course, to lie and pretend they were only following orders. Yes, we’ve heard this before, and it’s getting tiresome. You can find the same weasels on the boob tube shouting from the halls of Congress or the White House that it’s not their fault it’s the other side’s fault. 

Assuming there is a God above, these weasels will rot in hell for their lies and deceit. Yes, there is a right and a wrong, and these bad guys took the wrong side for money. They wanted to sway public opinion to win an election by any means. It has pushed ethics to the lowest levels. 

A good example of how to handle this came in the 2008 campaign when Republican presidential candidate John McCain refused to follow the birther shouts coming from many, including citizen Donald Trump. It was racist and unethical, and McCain, to his credit, quashed it in his campaign.

Terms like psycho warfare, and even the image of Breitbart or a Fox News correspondent shilling for Trump ca. 2016, can scare anyone with an unwashed brain. We see gestapo-like attacks on Facebook—ads powered by “targeted” marketing to the “persuadables.” These take the form of ads about unsubstantiated corruption committed by opponents, and scandals of any and every kind, and even convincing minorities not to vote since it doesn’t matter. In the film we see many of these ads, even those that played in third-world countries around the globe. By 2017, Cambridge Analytica had a hand in an alarming number of elections across the world.

One of the highlights of The Great Hack was watching the much-publicized Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing. We watch as the filmmakers show the side-by-side reactions of disbelief from the likes of David Carroll and Brittany Kaiser as they watch Zuckerberg squirm and BS a duplicitous Congress. There are so many villains here it seems like a rerun of a great Batman movie. However, this is not a comic book. It is real, even though the characters are as cartoonish and evil as the Joker. How do we stop this modern brainwashing? There are no easy fixes, folks. The genie is out of the bottle. We must contain and regulate.

One of the main characters in the film is played by former Business Development Director for Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who has turned whistleblower. She gives evidence to the UK Parliament detailing her former employer’s involvement in the Leave.EU campaign during the EU referendum. She also speaks out about her company’s involvement in the Trump presidential campaign. She was brought to testify before our Congress. Did it make the news? 

Kaiser is a flawed heroine as she faces the moral fight within herself of squealing on the rats while she has received all the financial rewards of working in this field for many years. She lived the life of the rich and famous for the last decade, even turning herself into a Republican after working for Obama and human rights organizations. Did she brainwash herself or was it the money? 

On the one hand you pull for her and on the other you want to see her pay society back in spades. Perhaps she should start a charity. The film mentions briefly that she now works as an advocate for data rights. While she is no Daniel Ellsberg, she does help bring down this monolithic Joker called Cambridge Analytica. She enters the film late in the first act and dominates the action as we follow her on her whistleblowing life. No doubt it takes courage and will power, but the question does remain: “Why did you do it, Brittany?” She tries to say that no one else would hire her and give her a good living, but sorry, that is not good enough. Let me be clear that the filmmakers don’t present her as the perfect heroine. It’s up to us to decide how we view Kaiser.

David Carroll meanwhile wins his case and helps bring down the bad guys. But will he ever get his data back from the tech giants? That remains to be seen. He and Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr are the most sympathetic characters in the film. We watch Carroll as he tries to teach his students the pros and cons of social media. He worries about the world his daughter will inherit. Will she be able to resist the manipulation? 

In the end we are left with a far deeper problem. Cambridge Analytica was but one company. What about all the rest of them? Perhaps that will be another film. I hope so. In the meantime, The Great Hack has opened our eyes to the snake oil salesmen of the internet. What can you do? When you see propaganda on Facebook such as Hillary “Crook” Clinton in handcuffs, report the spam to Facebook or Google. Will they do something about it? Maybe, if our Congress regulates them better. 

For her part, Cadwalladr speaks before a TED audience in Silicon Valley and asks the tech giants, whom she refers to as “gods of Silicon Valley,” “Is this how you want history to remember you? As the handmaidens to authoritarianism?” The audience is left stunned, as we are after we watch this bold and entertaining film.

The Great Hack is running on Netflix now.

Roger Paradiso is a filmmaker whose recent film, The Lost Village, has won many awards and appeared at festivals around the world. It is available to buy from Amazon and to view on Vimeo.