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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

Documentary Review: “The Great Hack” shows how data insecurity impacts elections

As much as I con­sid­er myself a fair­ly well-informed and engaged activist, I did not close­ly fol­low the Face­book hear­ings and Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­cal data scan­dal that were promi­nent in the news through­out 2018.

I knew some uneth­i­cal things had been done with data that allowed a lot of fake news and polit­i­cal ads to spread on Face­book, includ­ing in the lead-up to the 2016 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but watch­ing The Great Hack (now stream­ing on Net­flix), my first response was, “Yikes! How was this allowed to hap­pen and how has noth­ing been done to pre­vent these things from continuing?!”

Here’s a quick primer.

Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca got an app from a Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty data sci­en­tist that had sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand Face­book users com­plete a sur­vey which in the process gave access not just to their own Face­book data, but to all of their con­nec­tions’ Face­book data as well. There­fore Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca got per­son­al data on mil­lions of Face­book users with­out their knowl­edge or consent.

They then used this data in their work with var­i­ous polit­i­cal cam­paigns. Using the data, cam­paigns could tar­get spe­cif­ic peo­ple in spe­cif­ic loca­tions with spe­cif­ic ads that were the most like­ly to per­suade that per­son, based on the data.

Poster for The Great Hack

The Great Hack
Release Year: 2019
Direc­tors: Karim Amer, Jehane Nou­jaim
Run­ning Time: 1 hour, 53 min­utes
Watch trail­er

While this may sound some­what innocu­ous or like it could­n’t have much impact, when you learn more, it becomes clear how insid­i­ous and dan­ger­ous this tech­nol­o­gy is, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of elections.

“The Great Hack” is very effec­tive in telling what hap­pened and why it mat­ters. The film­mak­ers start with David Car­rol, an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Par­son School of Design, where he teach­es class­es on dig­i­tal media and app devel­op­ment. He explains the basics of what data is col­lect­ed on peo­ple and how it can be used.

“All of my inter­ac­tions, my cred­it card swipes, web search­es, loca­tions, my likes, they’re all col­lect­ed in real time and attached to my iden­ti­ty, giv­ing any buy­er direct access to my emo­tion­al pulse. Armed with this knowl­edge, they com­pete for my atten­tion, feed­ing me a steady stream of con­tent built for and seen only by me… What I like, what I fear, what my bound­aries are, and what it takes to cross them.”

In the Unit­ed States, Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca worked with Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz in the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, and were cred­it­ed with help­ing him win the Iowa cau­cus­es. Lat­er, they worked with the Trump cam­paign, and because of their pre­vi­ous work with Cruz, they already had amassed four­teen months of data and research that they were able to hand over to the Trump team.

The dig­i­tal branch of the Trump cam­paign was called Project Alamo, and they had an office that housed peo­ple not just from Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca but also from Face­book and Google (though when asked in a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing by Wash­ing­ton’s Maria Cantwell if any­one from Face­book worked with Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca on the Trump cam­paign, Face­book founder and CEO Mark Zucker­berg said he did­n’t think any­one had). At its peak, the Trump cam­paign was spend­ing over $1 mil­lion a day on Face­book ads.

Trump’s 2016 dig­i­tal cam­paign man­ag­er, who is now his 2020 cam­paign man­ag­er, claims that they ran 5.9 mil­lion visu­al ads on Face­book, com­pared to only 66,000 for the Clin­ton cam­paign. While we can have plen­ty of dis­cus­sions about cam­paign strat­e­gy and ad bud­get­ing, it is not just the vol­ume of ads that made the Trump cam­paign effec­tive, rather it was the uneth­i­cal­ly-begot­ten data and poten­tial­ly ille­gal ways they used that data that is the real problem.

Car­ole Cad­wal­ladr is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist at The Guardian in Lon­don who has been inves­ti­gat­ing Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, espe­cial­ly how it was tied to the Brex­it cam­paign. She got for­mer Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca employ­ee Christo­pher Wylie to start talk­ing with her. The film fea­tures a com­pelling video inter­view she con­duct­ed with him, in which she asks him about the way Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca col­lect­ed data on peo­ple with­out their knowl­edge or consent.

At one point in the film, Cad­wal­ladr asks:

“You did­n’t ever stop and think, ‘Actu­al­ly, this is peo­ple’s per­son­al infor­ma­tion, and we’re tak­ing it and we’re using it in ways that they don’t understand?’ ”

Wylie replies:

“No. Through­out his­to­ry you have exam­ples of gross­ly uneth­i­cal experiments.”

“Is that was this was?” Cad­wal­ladr asks.

“I think that yes, it was a gross­ly uneth­i­cal exper­i­ment,” Wylie says.

“You are play­ing with the psy­chol­o­gy of an entire coun­try with­out their con­sent or aware­ness. And not only are you, like, play­ing with the psy­chol­o­gy of an entire nation, you are play­ing with the psy­chol­o­gy of an entire nation in the con­text of the demo­c­ra­t­ic process.”

At anoth­er point in the film, Wylie talks more about the nature of Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, and one of its founders, Steve Ban­non, for­mer exec­u­tive of ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Bre­it­bart News and key Trump strate­gist and advisor.

“He fol­low this idea of the Bre­it­bart doc­trine,” says Wylie, “which is that if you want to fun­da­men­tal­ly change soci­ety, you first have to break it…[Cambridge Ana­lyt­i­ca] is the weapon that Ban­non want­ed to build to fight his cul­ture war.”

“It’s incor­rect to call Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca a pure­ly sort of data sci­ence com­pa­ny or an algo­rithm com­pa­ny,” Wylie says. “It is a full ser­vice pro­pa­gan­da machine.”

Back­ing up this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is Brit­tany Kaiser, anoth­er for­mer Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca employ­ee, who was much high­er up than Wylie, and much more hes­i­tant to share her sto­ry. Once inves­ti­ga­tions start­ed, how­ev­er in both the Unit­ed States and the Unit­ed King­dom, she start­ed coop­er­at­ing and shar­ing what she knew.

In a com­mit­tee hear­ing in the Unit­ed King­dom, she said that the psy­cho­graph­ics used by Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca were “weapons grade” and there­fore should not be used with­out the per­mis­sion of the government.

SCL, the British par­ent com­pa­ny to Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, start­ed out as a mil­i­tary con­trac­tor, includ­ing doing psy­cho­log­i­cal oper­a­tions (“PSYOPS”), or “com­mu­ni­ca­tions war­fare,” so it is not hard to believe that the com­pa­ny would use the same tech­niques in their oth­er work.

In the fall­out from the mul­ti­ple inves­ti­ga­tions and a dam­ag­ing under­cov­er video of Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca’s CEO, the com­pa­ny shut down and filed for bank­rupt­cy in May 2018. Some won­der if this was done to avoid more inves­ti­ga­tions, pun­ish­ment, and to get rid of or to avoid hav­ing to release data.

Cad­wal­ladr empha­sizes that, although Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca is gone, there is still the much big­ger and more wor­ry­ing sto­ry that “our per­son­al data is out there and being used against us in ways we don’t understand.”

She ques­tions if any coun­try can real­ly have free and fair elec­tions because of Face­book and how it can and has been used.

“These plat­forms which were cre­at­ed to con­nect us have now been weaponized,” she explains. “And it’s impos­si­ble to know what is what because it’s hap­pen­ing on exact­ly the same plat­forms that we chat to our friends or share baby pho­tos. Noth­ing is what it seems.” Cad­wal­ladr has a TED Talk that is well worth an addi­tion­al fif­teen min­utes of your time to watch.

Even an ear­ly Face­book investor, Roger McNamee, has come out against the way Face­book is com­plic­it in the demean­ing of our democracy.

“Face­book is designed to monop­o­lize atten­tion. Just tak­ing all the basic tricks of pro­pa­gan­da, mar­ry­ing them into the tricks of casi­no gam­bling. You know slot machines and the like. And basi­cal­ly play­ing on instincts, and fear and anger are the two most depend­able ways of doing that. And so they cre­at­ed a set of tools to allow adver­tis­ers to exploit that emo­tion­al audi­ence with indi­vid­ual-lev­el tar­get­ing. There’s 2.1 bil­lion peo­ple, each with their own real­i­ty. And once every­body has their own real­i­ty, it’s rel­a­tive­ly easy to manip­u­late them.”

Being informed media con­sumers is impor­tant, and espe­cial­ly so when on social media like Face­book. Don’t believe every­thing you read, and know that pret­ty much every­thing you see is deter­mined by Face­book’s algo­rithms which favor con­tent that they have been paid to put in your feed.

There are so many more details to this whole scan­dal and more inter­est­ing peo­ple that make for a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. I strong­ly rec­om­mend watch­ing the film to get the full ben­e­fit. “The Great Hack” is now stream­ing on Net­flix.

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