Not so long ago, election campaigning involved leafletting, knocking on doors and the occasional TV ad. I still remember the plummy voice that would advise you that the “following is a party political broadcast”.
Today, however, the internet has changed everything. Political campaigns are now largely conducted through online advertising, using a variety of platforms but most frequently, Facebook. In a recent podcast the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson remarked that in this brave new digital world “there will be two kinds of political candidate: those that know how to use Facebook and those that lose”.
This is a bold claim and one that should alarm anyone who has an interest in the health of democracy. But is it right? Having watched Jehane Noujaim and Karin Amer’s new Netflix documentary The Great Hack, I am inclined to say that things are even worse than Ferguson’s claim suggests. Politicians are no longer simply ‘using’ Facebook. They are teaming up with unaccountable ‘data advisers’ and private companies who claim they can supercharge the reach and influence that social media affords.
The Great Hack focuses on the most notorious of these companies, Cambridge Analytica. Back in March 2018, The Observer published the personal account of one of its former employees, Christopher Wylie. According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica had gained access to vast amounts of personal data collected through an innocuous online psychological test and then held by a Facebook-affiliated academic.
They used this data to identify individuals whose voting preferences could be manipulated – the so-called persuadables – and then target them with sponsored content on Facebook designed to do just that. Cambridge Analytica provided data services to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign and to the Vote Leave 2016 Brexit campaign.
Wylie’s allegations raised profound and wide-ranging issues: How did Facebook allow so much of its user’s data to fall into the hands of a private company? How effective was the program of psychological profiling and content targeting? Are there any rules against this kind of manipulation?
The Great Hack picks up the story as the fallout from Wylie’s allegations plays out on both sides of the Atlantic. Noujaim and Amer give the story a relatable human scale by following two individuals affected by the scandal in very different ways; the first, Brittany Kaiser, another former Cambridge Analytica employee, is coming to terms with her role in the events and the public scrutiny that she must now deal with.
Meanwhile, David Carroll, an American academic and digital rights campaigner is seeking to gain access to the data that Cambridge Analytica has on him. There are also fascinating cameos from Julian Wheatland, the ex-chief operating officer of Cambridge Analytica and Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian journalist who broke the Wylie story.
Kaiser proves a fascinating subject. We are introduced to her as she luxuriates in a swimming pool “somewhere in Thailand”. She has clearly done well financially but there is also a sense of loneliness hanging over her. As she explains, many of her friends are no longer speaking to her on account of her role in the election of Donald Trump. It feels almost absurd that someone so young (Kaiser was just 29 in 2016) could have had such a role but she is not alone. As data becomes the new source of power, the power brokers are inevitably becoming younger.
David Carroll’s story is also compelling, but for very different reasons. Carroll’s story is essentially our story. The ordinary voter struggling to come to terms with the new ways that one’s own data can be used as a weapon. Many of us may comfort ourselves that we are not a “persuadable” but can we really be so sure? As Carroll argues, it would certainly help if we could see exactly what companies like Cambridge Analytica know about us and how they use this data. Carroll’s fight for this data will, I suspect and hope, become our fight.
Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer first met in 2011 during the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At the time this demonstration and others like it in the region were heralded as an ‘Arab Spring’; a rising up of oppressed peoples against undemocratic and authoritarian regimes. There were suggestions that social media platforms and Facebook in particular had been a key part of the movement.
Whilst the true picture of how these movements came together and coordinated is more complex, there is strong evidence that Facebook played an important role in Egypt. The Arab Spring created a sense that social media would link together oppressed groups and become a key weapon in the fight for democracy around the world. Sadly, it now appears that this optimism was misjudged.
As the Great Hack documents, far from being a weapon in the fight for democracy, Facebook and other platforms like it represent one of the biggest challenges to the democratic process since 1945.