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The power of the animations is how real and familiar they seem. They don't look like sci-fi. They look like what you see every day when you interact with your devices.
Emily Dreyfuss covers the intersection of tech and culture for WIRED.Amer says they intentionally kept the visual language fun. They wanted to point out that each little data point we create throughout our day seems innocuous on its own. "It's kind of like emoji-land gone dark. It has to feel playful and kind of nice and light and, what could possibly go wrong?" he says. "The inspiration was Fantasia, actually. The data is this dust that we're exhausting, we're releasing." That dust, the film argues, is what Facebook, and Silicon Valley, and governments, and Cambridge Analytica use to choke us.Like dust, this lucrative and shady business is so hard to see in action—even as we all participate in it—that the easiest thing is to ignore it. Even people who are creeped out by uncanny ad-targeting and know that misinformation campaigns can and have eroded democracy, have a hard time actually imagining how it all works . That's one reason, as Carroll points out in the film, why so many people believe their cell phone is listening to them. Your phone spying on your conversations is an easier way to explain perfectly placed ads in your social media than the actual answer : that your data trail has made your behavior and desires predictable.The visual language works perfectly in the middle of the film when Kaiser and Carroll are both watching Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress in early 2018. The directors give us a split screen to see their reactions, and splice in Carroll's tweets as well as the reactions of the general public on social media using the animations. It's in this moment that everything comes together: the quests of both main characters, the invisible structures of data and social media influence, and the creator of the technology platform that arguably kicked off the era and has the most power to change it. When Zuckerberg repeatedly blames Facebook's privacy problems on the lone wolf that is Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser rolls her eyes. "Blame it on me, Mark, go for it," she says, shaking her head.Kaiser emerges as a frustrating if fascinating character. Though she started her political career as a volunteer for Barack Obama, she went on to write Cambridge Analytica's first contract with the Trump campaign. In her capacity as an executive for Cambridge, she worked on the Leave.EU campaign, and met with Julian Assange (a fact that later got her interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation). And though the directors show us deeply private conversations with her, why she chose to finally speak out against Cambridge Analytica is never made completely clear. She may not even know herself. But that's part of what makes the journey of the film with her so intimate; as the cameras follow Kaiser, she's grappling in real time with the consequences of what she has done."When we met Brittany, we didn't know what to think about her. We questioned what her motivations were," says Noujaim. "What we found, we believe, was that she was really looking for redemption, a way to understand what she had been involved in. And with her, we learn."The most compelling moments in the documentary come when Kaiser seems suddenly to understand that influencing voter behavior based on data tracking and psychology is not a morally neutral act. We watch as she finds troves of information on her work computer, information that seemed mundane to her at the time but that show the underhanded tactics of the company. One particularly alarming find from her computer is footage from a Cambridge Analytica sales pitch in which the company touts how it suppressed voter turnout along racial lines in Trinidad and Tobago by creating a viral youth movement that seemed to those participating in it, and to outsiders, like an authentic, grass roots phenomenon. Instead, the sales pitch shows, it was a carefully calibrated social media disinformation campaign created by Cambridge with the express intent of abusing existing racial tensions to achieve a certain electoral outcome.What Kaiser seems to realize is the point the film drives home: that the now defunct Cambridge Analytica was a symptom of a disease plaguing society, one that won't be cured with the shuttering of a single data company."Cambridge is really a vehicle to take us into the story of Facebook and Silicon Valley at large, and how that is what we actually really need to be focused on," says Amer.
After watching The Great Hack, you'll have a much better understanding of what data tracking, harvesting, and selling looks like, and of how it can be used against individuals, communities, and nations. In that way, The Great Hack is a modern horror story. The villain is Cambridge Analytica, yes, but also Facebook, and all the systems that enable people to be secretly manipulated by the digital psychological clues they leave through their lives. It's terrifying because it's true.
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Former SCL contractor Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica last March, telling *The Guardian* and *The New York Times* that the company misappropriated the data of tens of millions of Facebook users and used it for political purposes during the 2016 presidential election in the US.