Review: ‘The Great Hack’ explores the dark side of big data
Thinking about finally getting off of Facebook? ”The Great Hack ,” a new documentary on Netflix, might just be the push you were looking for. At the very least, you’ll probably never take another online personality test. It’s meant to scare and influence you, and probably even for good reason — although it is a little ironic that the entire film is about how our personal data is being manipulated and turned into fearmongering tactics.
Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, “The Great Hack” dives into the Cambridge Analytica scandal and why it matters. By relying mostly on news reports, many by journalist Carole Cadwalladr, and public testimony, the film might not be all that revelatory for anyone who followed the story and watched Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony, however.
But you do get to spend a significant time with the former Cambridge Analytica insider-turned-whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, a young woman who was central in drawing up contracts with the Trump campaign and the right hand to the charismatic CEO Alexander Nix. She has since decided that she wants to regain a moral compass and speak to authorities — and this documentary crew — about what she knows and how her old colleagues are lying about their involvement in Brexit and other elections and what they’ve done with all the data they claimed to have deleted.
“The Great Hack” starts out with so much promise as David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons, starts to question where all this data that we all very willingly share is going. The narration is a little sentimental and dreamy.
“It began with a dream of a connected world,” Carroll says in voiceover. “Matchmaker, instant fact checker, guardian of our memories...but no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.”
Anyone with a pulse and an internet connection knows that of course every click, every search and every purchase is being stored, saved, sold and commoditized for companies who want to sell you more, and better. But he is the one who wondered how a U.K. data company had somehow gained enough information to brag that it had 5,000 data points on every U.S. voter and could “predict the personality of every person in the United States” and then actually did something about it. He asked if he could see his voter profile. When Cambridge Analytica declined, it became a red alarm.
“The Great Hack” will help connect the dots between these names that many may only be passively aware of. It’s meant to alarm the public about how our data, our purchases, our likes and the “fun personality quizzes” we take are part of a digital footprint that tech companies are profiting off of and using to manipulate us.
But the film devolves into a referendum on the rise of Donald Trump and authoritarian governments around the world, while failing to examine the agency of the individual at the voting booth, or the idea that anything else might have been going on in the psyche of the country to lead to where we are now. No, according to “The Great Hack,” the “crooked Hillary” memes get most of the credit for pushing those Facebook users that Cambridge Analytica deemed to be “persuadable” to vote for the candidate who was paying them.
In this, it seems wholly targeted toward one segment of the population, the ones whose minds are made up about why Trump won, and alienating to the other. It’s also an oddly confusing watch. Many of the talking heads start to blur together and the filmmakers don’t help in reminding the viewer who they’re listening to. Thankfully, on Netflix you’re able to rewind.
These are interesting and fraught times that deserve an unflinching look at the perils of data rights and online privacy, but “The Great Hack” is a reminder that documentaries are not always journalism. But perhaps this may just inspire someone to go read more from the outlets who broke and continue to follow the story, and maybe, eventually, make a great documentary about it.
“The Great Hack,” a Netflix release, is rated TV-MA. Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr