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The Great Hack


The Great Hack: A Documentary

A new Netflix documentary investigates Cambridge Analytica’s role in the rise of Trump and the Brexit Referendum - and serves up a regretful chameleon.

By Chris Cummins

Are we being fed a personalized version of reality and, if so, what are the consequences of this phenomenon? Is Western democracy in danger because we are beholden to social media giants that, rather than encouraging social interaction, as the name might suggest, have led us to retreat into our own little caged-in worlds of confirmation bias? Does billionaire Mark Zuckerberg wield more influence that democratic institutions?

These are all questions that The Great Hack, released at the end of last month on Netflix, purports to answer. That’s why it was one of the most widely anticipated documentary releases of 2019. It claims to present the inside story on how the now-defunct British data mining company Cambridge Analytica helped swing both the Brexit Referendum and the 2016 US Presidential election that saw Donald Trump surge to an unlikely victory.

Ultimately it fails to do that; telling us, albeit in a vivid and engaging way, things that most of us already knew. Namely how we willingly give up our personal data in return for free access to communication platforms like Facebook who, trusting that none of us can be bothered to read the terms and conditions, pass it on for a profit.

We see that Zuckerberg is evasive, arrogant and unwilling to properly engage in the Frankenstein’s monster that he and his frat house buddies created. And we learn that the Eton-educated types leading Cambridge Analytica are morally bankrupt phonies who smugly view ordinary internet users as dumb puppets to be manipulated for their financial gain.

Making The Invisible Visible

Producer Karim Amer has said he wants to make the invisible visible, so graphics show data dispersing from laptops into the air like steam off a hob. The users, seemingly unaware, stare vacantly at their screens as their private details float away.

But unless we went for a fateful nap in the year 1999 and only just woke up, we knew that, didn’t we?

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the great characters involved, The Great Hack might have felt like the conversations you have at the Christmas dinner table when you try and explain the phenomenon of social media to an interested but confounded Aged Relative. You know, the great-aunt who grew up in an era when being social meant going round for a nice cup of tea, not posting a picture of a body part on the world wide web.

We know that they used mined-data to try and change behaviour in marginal districts in the US election, we know that Nix and his team were mysteriously evasive about their extent in the Brexit campaign. But we never learn any hard facts about the extent to which this all had an effect.

Could it be that the story that a data-mining company could swing two of the biggest democratic upsets in recent years is actually a self-aggrandizing myth that suits the would-be super-villains of Cambridge Analytica.

For pink-haired whistle-blower Christopher Wylie the ultimate impact is a moot point. His argument to a Parliamentary Committee is that if someone is caught doping in the Olympics, they are disqualified whatever the impact the doping is shown to have had on your performance. You cannot tolerate cheating. But it would have been nice to have some enlightenment.

A Bond Villain

Yet The Great Hack is still a compelling watch due to the colourful and slippery characters that play key roles. Firstly, there’s the former head of Cambridge Analytica, the Eton-educated Alexander Nix. With his slicked-back hair, supercilious smile and overly articulated English, he is straight out of central casting for a Bond villain role. He flatly refused to co-operate with the film but there is enough undercover hidden-camera footage to make your skin crawl.

For example, we hear him boasting how, with Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group, he used a silly hand-sign that duped the young Afro-Caribbean voters in ethnically divided Trinidad & Tobago into staying away from the election booths with a dance, having identified them as naïve and “lazy”, and his haughty giggle when asked about the Brexit Referendum. “We don’t talk about that.” Pause. Giggle. “Oops, we won.”

A Regretful Chameleon

But Nix’s role in this drama is merely a pantomime cameo. The central role falls to the chameleon-like Shakespearean heroine at the centre of the drama, Brittany Kaiser, a former senior director at Cambridge Analytica.

We first meet Kaiser being served coconut-shell refreshments in a glorious infinity pool “somewhere in Thailand”, rueing her role “lying for old white men” while clearly enjoying spending the fortune she made doing exactly that.

British Social entrepreneur and campaigner Paul Hilder has tracked her down and his interviews with her are revealing both her chimeric character and the theme of the film.

Firstly, she reiterates that her background is in human rights and that she played an energetic role in Barack Obama’s presidential candidate campaign. She wants us to know that that is the “real” Brittany and that she was led astray for a few years because the left-wing worthy causes wouldn’t pay her, and her family was in dire financial straits.

Brittany Kaiser

CC BY-SA 2.0 /

Brittany Kaiser, CC BY-SA 2.0

„That is their own choice.“

During these years on the dark side she helped pitch the use of “data-sets” on voters which had been mined using on-line personality quizzes. They were then used to then send Facebook adverts back to voters who had been classified as undecided. Called as a witness to a British Parliamentary Committee she testifies that Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook data it had claimed to have deleted.

But it is unclear from her interview with Hilder whether she feels she genuinely was part of anything truly nefarious:

"What this strategy is mostly meant to do is to identify people who are still considering many different options and educate them on some of the options that are out there,” she says. “And if they’re on the fence, then they can be persuaded to go one way or the other. Again, that is their own choice.”

Rather than contemplating the ultimate results of her work, she emphasises that she was just a naïve foot soldier and frets about what her old friends think of her. Then she frets even more when the Guardian’s investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr reveals that simple foot-soldier Kaiser had travelled to Russia, met Julian Assange and made payments to Wikileaks. Will this be a further hit to her reputation?

A self-pitying, egotistical weathercock, who now reportedly has a contract for a beans-spilling book, Kaiser seems a poster girl for this age of distorted perceptions of reality.

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