In 2016, the London-based and now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have improperly obtained 87 million Facebook subscribers’ personal data to support the Trump campaign’s Project Alamo. Some observers believe this activity helped sway that year’s presidential election.
Surprisingly personal and affecting, though strongly partisan as well, the documentary “The Great Hack” analyzes this incident and its impact on those involved. Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the movie — co-directed by husband-and-wife Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (2013’s “The Square”) — is currently streaming on Netflix.
A central figure in the real-life drama the film recounts was Analytica’s former business development director, Brittany Kaiser. Kaiser emerges as the story’s unlikely, inscrutable, but at least partially sympathetic protagonist. Other key figures include media professor David Carroll of New York City’s Parsons School of Design and British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr.
Famously, Carroll sued Analytica — a multinational firm co-founded by provocative Catholic political consultant and key Trump campaign operative Steve Bannon in 2013 — to recover his stolen data. Cadwalladr rose to prominence for her work reporting on the scandal.
According to Kaiser, Project Alamo massaged the purloined Facebook data to “target ‘persuadables’ in five key swing states.”
“We bombarded them until they saw the world the way we wanted them to,” she says. “You send out your data, it gets analyzed and comes back at you as targeted messages.”
“The Great Hack” occasionally features strong language, and the ethical questions it raises require sagacious sifting. While it’s unsuitable for children, some parents may find the documentary acceptable for mature teenagers.
Audience reaction will likely be divided according to already established views of the president and his policies. But at another level, “The Great Hack” is undeniably rewarding. As Kaiser reckons with past actions she now regrets and seems at times overwhelmed by the task of setting things right, a fascinating portrait is drawn of a soul in crisis.
What the film reveals about how easily others can access our data and potentially use it to influence elections, moreover, should trouble viewers regardless of their political affiliation.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.