The Great Hack
The Great Hack (teaser graphic)

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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