Netflix documentary The Great Hack profiles Cambridge Analytica
“There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica,” Julian Wheatland says in the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack. “It just sucks for me it was Cambridge Analytica.”
It sucks for Wheatland because he was the COO of Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting and data firm that became synonymous with the unchecked power of Facebook to peer into our minds and, many believe, “persuade” us into voting a certain way. In an undercover video released in March 2018, CEO Alexander Nix bragged about creating “defeat Crooked Hillary” Facebook videos for the Trump campaign, which the firm would target to small numbers of people in battleground states.
“The company made some significant mistakes when it came to its use of data,” Wheatland said on the latest episode of Recode Decode. “They were ethical mistakes. I think that part of the reason that that happened was that we spent a lot of time concentrating on not making regulatory mistakes … It felt like, well, once that was done, then we’ve done what we needed to do, and we forgot to pause and think about, ethically, what was going on.”
Appearing on the new podcast — along with The Great Hack’s director and writer Karim Amer and Pedro Kos, and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee — Wheatland called for Facebook to be regulated as a utility and said “every company is a data company today, and how that data is ethically managed needs to spread through all companies.”
McNamee lamented that, so far, the political repercussions for Facebook have been a slap on the wrist. He compared it and Google to chemical companies in the 1950s that were “artificially profitable” because they could pollute the environment at no cost.
“By my very, very rough estimate, Facebook, if it were held accountable for the things that it has done, would be an unprofitable company and Google would be modestly profitable in comparison to today,” McNamee said. “I believe that if we do not do something about making companies in the economy generally accountable for the damage they do, the political arguments are going to turn out to be irrelevant.”
‘The Great Hack’: Netflix doc unpacks Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Brexit and democracy’s death
It’s perhaps not for nothing that The Great Hack — the new Netflix documentary about the connections between Cambridge Analytica, the U.S. election and Brexit, out on July 23 — opens with a scene from Burning Man. There, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, scrawls the name of the company onto a strut of “the temple” that will eventually get burned in that fiery annual ritual. It’s an apt opening.
There are probably many of us who’d wish quite a lot of the last couple of years could be thrown into that temple fire, but this documentary is the first I’ve seen to expertly peer into the flames of what has become the real-world dumpster fire that is social media, dark advertising and global politics which have all become inextricably, and, often fatally, combined.
The documentary is also the first that you could plausibly recommend to those of your relatives and friends who don’t work in tech, as it explains how social media — specifically Facebook — is now manipulating our lives and society, whether we like it or not.
As New York Professor David Carroll puts it at the beginning, Facebook gives “any buyer direct access to my emotional pulse” — and that included political campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. Privacy campaigner Carroll is pivotal to the film’s story of how our data is being manipulated and essentially kept from us by Facebook.
The U.K.’s referendum decision to leave the European Union, in fact, became “the Petri dish” for a Cambridge Analytica (CA) experiment, says Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr. She broke the story of how the political consultancy, led by Eton-educated CEO Alexander Nix, applied to the democratic operations of the U.S. and U.K., and many other countries, over a chilling 20+ year history techniques normally used by “psyops” operatives in Afghanistan. Watching this film, you literally start to wonder if history has been warped toward a sickening dystopia.