The Great Hack: Behind the Scenes of the Facebook Data Crisis

“The Great Hack” weaves together elements of how breakthroughs in computer technology and data analysis have enabled a large-scale, global spread of a new form of the social experiment that involves changing the world in a specific image. Anyone with a Facebook account or any other social media account that leaves a digital footprint should watch this documentary.

Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix defined the organization as a “data-driven communications company“. In this situation, social media serves as a new petri dish, attracting people who are interested in hot trends and ideas that must be absorbed and assimilated rapidly or they will be left behind. Facebook and Twitter have made profits from this cultural phenomenon. It was only be a matter of time until elections and politics were affected.

“The Great Hack” is a documentary about the 2016 US presidential election, as well as the Brexit referendum and other global political campaigns. The unifying thread running through all of these events is a business called Cambridge Analytica, which is represented throughout the film by several ex-employees who are whistleblowers on the firm’s actions. At its peak, the company could store up to 5,000 data points about each person in its databases. This information was used in several ways, all with the purpose of altering a particular demographic. They used the accumulated data to targeted those called the “the persuadable,” or indecisive people, through social media ads to attain the desired political outcome. Nix said, “It’s personality that drives behavior, and behavior obviously influences how you vote.”

What happened to the hundreds of data points that ended up in those databases? Remember those harmless Facebook quizzes to find out what Disney villain you were, whether you were an introvert or any other silly question you couldn’t wait to have answered, so you could share it with your friends? These brief posts were intended to elicit additional information about you that Cambridge Analytica could align with a personality assessment tool to develop a psychological profile. Their data algorithms produced an astonishingly accurate portrait of you. All of this is based on the information you willingly shared through these tests, as well as other information gathered via Facebook.

In one vignette from the documentary, a Professor Carroll at the Parsons school inquired if his students believed their phones were listening in on them. With a laugh from the class, he explains that, while that sounds intriguing, what they are seeing is actually a perfectly personalized platform.

Christopher Wylie
Brittany Kiaiser

Then there’s Christopher Wylie, a programmer and data analyst who worked on many of the company’s algorithms and is now referred to as a “whistleblower.” He describes Cambridge Analytica as a “full-service propaganda machine” in the film. “If you were a buddy of someone who used the app, you’d have no idea that I just pulled all your data,” he continues. Extended status updates, private messages, and likes are all available. All of this information was utilized to create a psychological profile of the population. Also, former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, shares her insights into the company’s inner workings about which campaigns the organization worked for.

The film’s ability to create a timeline for all of the events that would eventually lead to Cambridge Analytics’ catastrophe is one of its many virtues. It explains how Cambridge Analytica obtained data from Facebook users without their permission or knowledge. In order to categorize them so that they could provide their clients with information about their target audiences and how to effectively approach them. From the beginning of their data collection to its CEO Alexander Nix pleading guilty to criminal charges brought by the UK Information Commissioner in response to Professor Carroll’s fight to reclaim his data. Ms. Kaiser, Mark Zuckerberg, and other Cambridge Analytica employees also testified in front of the U.S. Congress.

This documentary is contentious in the sense that it covers not only Brexit but also the presidential election. Cambridge Analytica’s role is sinister, as is their militaristic level of psychological warfare against the populace. This documentary shows how people can be persuaded to vote against their own interests and beliefs. Cambridge Analytica began as a military defense firm that used research to sway the behavior of hostile audiences. When they started deploying these methods and information warfare in elections, however, it was a game-changer. The “Do So” campaign in Trinidad and Tobago, where Cambridge Analytica inundated social media with visuals and slogans, utilized similar militaristic techniques. This approach made voting look undesirable in order to develop people who were not in cahoots with them. The results favored Cambridge Analytica, as many young people did not vote, allowing the side that collaborated with Cambridge Analytica to win the election.

The “Great Hack” documentary was a warning tale for the general public, but I believe that given the gravity of the situation, they should have used a more venomous tone. Seeing how important data can be to a company and how simple it is to access. Because we all use social media platforms, it’s critical to know what we’re signing up for and how to read the software agreements. Knowing what kind of information, they’re gathering and how much access they have to it. Professor Carroll questions at the end of the video if he can be manipulated, but we should be asking if we are still willing to be fooled and if we can profit from it.

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