Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.
The Great Hack
The premise: As a documentary, a thriller, and a screed, The Great Hack outlines in detail how social media sites such as Facebook and data firms such as Cambridge Analytica harvest and use people’s data to sell users things — including political candidates and agendas.
What it’s about: By now, most Americans are aware — no matter their political leanings — that the data they give up to sites like Facebook and Twitter (as well as what they’ve purchased, their browsing history, and other personal data) is bought and used by companies that want to sell them things. But the extent to which this data harvesting has been used to reshape our world is, for many people, only beginning to come into focus.
And one of the biggest reasons, unsurprisingly, is the 2016 election.
For The Great Hack, directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (who made the 2013 documentary The Square, about the Arab Spring) talk to experts, journalists, and — most tellingly — whistleblowers and former employees at Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that came under fire for its work with both Trump’s campaign and the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. The documentary draws lines between seemingly banal actions viewers many have participated in, such as whimsical personality tests on Facebook, and attempts to sway public opinion in big ways by politicians and ideological groups.
You don’t need to change everyone’s mind, argues Brittany Kaiser, former director of business development at Cambridge Analytica. You just need to change the minds of the “persuadables.” And the way you identify them is through understanding not just what they buy or say about themselves, but how they think. Through harvesting personal data, Cambridge Analytica could, and did, identify and persuade them.
The Great Hack isn’t revealing much that hasn’t been reported elsewhere, but it’s powerful in the ways it does so. In one sequence, Kaiser is shown in split screen with Mark Zuckerberg as he gives testimony before Congress in April 2019. (The film premiered at Sundance in January but has since been recut.) As he speaks about Facebook’s involvement with her former employer, she reacts with disbelief. And her reaction says it all.
There are a number of claims throughout The Great Hack that aren’t substantiated, but they are damning nonetheless: allegations of deception, fraud, and ethical shadiness brought by whistleblowers like Kaiser and another former employee, Christopher Wylie. At the least, the film may give you pause about your Facebook account and digital footprint, and it’s a sobering reminder that in the digital future, the internet isn’t just where you buy things; it’s where you and everything about you are for sale.
Critical reception: The Great Hack currently has a score of 68 on Metacritic. At the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan writes that “it both explains and offers a warning shot about the misuse of personal data and how that influenced past elections and might well do so in the future.”
How to watch it: The Great Hack is streaming on Netflix.