Review: The Great Hack (2019)


Every few months, Netflix throws its large amounts of investment capital into a handsomely-produced documentary that taps into a key moment in the recent past. By doing so, the company attempts to recontextualize the world we’re living in while also capitalizing on the short attention span of modern viewers, who will remember the topic the film recounts, but none of the finer details. And thus, we get films like this past winter’s Fyre, and now, The Great Hack, which delves into the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the fallout of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Like Fyre, The Great Hack is entertaining and informative, especially to viewers who don’t read current events extensively. But it unfortunately avoids tackling the most important aspect of its topic.

If you’ve never heard of Cambridge Analytica, you’ll likely find The Great Hack a revelation on how online data is mined and weaponized in our current world. However, if you’re at all familiar with data mining specifically and Edward Bernays, public relations, and mass marketing in the 20th and 21st centuries in general, you’ll know that mass manipulation is nothing new; what has changed is the ways we’re manipulated through algorithms and online tracking, not the fact that we’re manipulated at all. 

Thus, the moral outrage at the centre of The Great Hack—that it is wrong for companies like Cambridge Analytica to use data collected on us by tech giants like Facebook and Google and weaponize it for political gain—only gets at half the issue. To be sure, it’s frustrating for people to be reminded that Donald Trump may have won the election because his campaign manipulated people’s online data by targeting undecided voters with fake headlines that stoked resentment and nativism. It’s also doubly wrong that Cambridge Analytica used data they said they had deleted and Facebook denied any wrongdoing until backed into a corner by leaks and falling stock prices. But the ultimate issue is not the politicization, it’s the weaponization in the first place, whether in order to sell us a product or a political party.

At least the filmmakers acknowledge this fact, even if indirectly. For one, The Great Hack focuses partially on David Carroll, an American professor of data at Parsons University, who legally challenged Cambridge Analytica to release information on how they used his online data in the election and who has since become a leading digital rights activist. Carroll correctly points out the necessity for laws around individuals’ online human rights and flags issues with how our privacy is invaded at all times and how our brains are being rewritten by companies manipulating our online engagement.

However, The Great Hack largely abandons Carroll in the narrative as it takes up with a flashier central figure, Brittany Kaiser, who worked as the director of business development for Cambridge Analytica and was central to the firm’s shady operations, beneath the tutelage of CEO (and pseudo Bond villain) Alexander Nix. Kaiser is a frustrating figure, the kind that is attractive to documentary filmmakers, who want to follow around contradictory, idealistic individuals who embody the very things they purport to be against. 

According to her own narrative of her life, Kaiser was once an inspired young activist, working on the Obama campaign and with Amnesty International. But once the recession hit, she came on hard times and transitioned to the private sector where she found herself working for Cambridge Analytica on the Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns. By testifying against her former employer, she finds a way to realign the narrative of her life and return to being a hero in her own eyes. In actuality, Kaiser is a disgruntled executive who left Cambridge Analytica due to a pay dispute and only turned on the company long after its public perception had soured. Her motives appear to be entirely selfish and she has gone on to become a “cryptocurrency hustler with ties to organized crime,” according to this article at The Bulwark.

The Great Hack lets Kaiser tell her own story and never verbally contradicts her. However, the filmmakers are smart enough to juxtapose the story she tells with a variety of other facts. For instance, the filmmakers are clever in how they present Kaiser. We first meet her in an anonymous luxury resort in Thailand. She discusses how hard her life has been while relaxing in an infinity pool, enjoying a level of luxury most people have never experienced; the disconnect between the story of her life and the life she’s living couldn’t be plainer. Her exodus from Cambridge Analytica has obviously not harmed her quality of life in any significant way.

Furthermore, the filmmakers allow her enough room in the film to share more than she intends, whether directly or indirectly. At points, her diatribes about being manipulated by Alexander Nix let slip that she had more to do with the operations than she lets on. At other points, the film inserts a Tweet or snippet from a news article that contradicts her; at one point we see a tweet from another former Cambridge Analytica employee, Christopher Wylie, that reads: “Brittany Kaiser is not a whistleblower.” However, despite some clever presentation, The Great Hack still spends too much time with Kaiser and allows her too much of the benefit of the doubt. It wants to give her enough rope to hang herself with, but in so doing, it ends up letting her peddle too much in support of her redemption narrative, which is easy for casual viewers to buy into.

It’s too bad then, that the film doesn’t spend more time with Wylie, who should get most of the credit for exposing Cambridge Analytica’s corruption, and more proactive figures like Carroll and The Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the story along with Wylie. It’s also disappointing that the film only casually mentions that the Obama campaign manipulated user data from social media in the 2012 campaign. It adds an implicit assumption that data manipulation done by left-of-centre politicians is fair game, which is astoundingly wrong.

Yet despite all these issues I have with The Great Hack, I have to admit that it works quite well for its target audience. Netflix is not targeting people who read extensively on digital rights issues or who were aware of Cambridge Analytica back when they were working for the Ted Cruz campaign during the Republican primaries. They are targeting casual viewers who want to learn a bit about the world while consuming addictive and entertaining documentary narratives.

The Great Hack succeeds as a primer on Cambridge Analytica and data manipulation in general. But like Fyre, it could’ve been so much more than a mere primer. It could’ve examined why social media users are fine with buying into an online world that psychologically manipulates them and why the Faustian bargain of existing online is so essential to modern capitalism.

A documentary that examined those societal questions could be riveting. But that isn’t this doc. This one has to suffice with being merely informative to the uninitiated and compelling enough to justify not simply reading an article on the same subject.

6 out of 10

The Great Hack (2019, USA)

Directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim; written by Karim Amer and Erin Barnett.