When I was young, the theory of subliminal advertising was taught as if it were established scientific fact. Combining the tools of the behaviorists with the symbolic language of Freud and Jung, whitecoats in the employ of Madison Avenue had developed precise ways to manipulate behavior via covert symbolism, subliminal suggestions that bypassed awareness and spoke directly to subconscious impulse, invulnerable to critical thinking.
The new science had been summarized for popular audiences a generation before in the popular, alarmist books of Vance Packard, a journalist and fierce critic of consumerism whose 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders laid out exactly how our desires and decisions were being manipulated in targeted and irresistible ways. Imagine the despair the robot feels upon discovering that she is a robot, the loss of autonomy, agency and inner dominion! It is easy to forgive the panic of the tech-rich ’50s. The revelation of subliminal science must have felt like the psycho-emotional equivalent of the bomb.
The theory of subliminal messaging, it turned out, was based entirely on a few fraudulent clinical studies with falsified results. Practical behavioral science had not, in fact, progressed to such advanced levels of remote control. But of course the study of behavior continued unabated, even if many of the ecstatic claims of the subliminalists and the CIA’s MK Ultra mind-control program turned out to be false grails and dystopian science fiction.
Among its many startling revelations and insights, the excellent 2019 Cambridge Analytica documentary The Great Hack reveals the brute, financed leverage that is actually required to manipulate behavior in the 21st century. That older model of control promised a 1:1 agency and efficiency: Man is exposed to an imperceptible single-frame image of hot buttered popcorn, and maybe some breasts for good measure; man scurries to cinema lobby reaching for wallet.
In The Great Hack, by contrast, we see scads of personal data giddily volunteered and collected at thousands and thousands of social and commercial contact points; they just put out the marked buckets and we fill them! These abundant data fuel precise, real-time behavioral profiling and the identification of a soft segment of the population deemed “persuadables”: those who stand between you and the thing you want to make happen.
The persuadables are then treated to multi-million-dollar fireworks displays of messaging – a bombardment, a bludgeoning, a round-the-clock bath of disinformation and data-driven emotional manipulation, all of which is intended to move them about one half-inch to the right: enough to swing an election in Trinidad and Tobago; enough to eke Brexit through (“Oops, we won,” said Cambridge Analytica’s head honcho Alexander Nix); and enough, perhaps, to give us president Donald Trump. Oops.
A wild success at its 2019 Sundance Film Festival premiere, The Great Hack was directed by Oscar nominees Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Square, The Control Room). Over nearly two hours of analysis and intimate engagement with key players, The Great Hack documents the Cambridge Analytica scandal literally as it unfolds, with pivotal moments caught live and through the eyes of virtually all the principals except CA’s Alexander Nix, who declined to participate.
Otherwise, they are all here: the British investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr; the New York professor and data rights advocate David Carroll; former CA data scientist and whistleblower Christopher Wylie; a little cameo from billionaire investor and vanity rocker Roger McNamee (Moonalice), a founding investor in Facebook who has flipped hard against it. Most of all, The Great Hack follows the inscrutable tracks of Brittany Kaiser, the ambiguous, complicated, brilliant and downright-Shakespearean figure whose actions at various times can be said to have both created and cracked the whole damn affair.
While other characters (Cadwalladr, Carroll) emerge as more firmly principle-driven, Kaiser is this film’s slippery conscience and the main reason it works as a complex, multidimensional human story and not just an exposé of corporate and political malfeasance, which is a kind of story perhaps better-suited to print than film. Kaiser came up as a highly effectual Obama campaigner, one of the team credited with inventing data-driven, social media-based campaigning. For reasons ostensibly related to family, financial difficulties and the razor-thin margins of do-gooding, she is seduced to the dark side of data by Nix and goes to work for Cambridge Analytica, changing ideological fashion to the right and developing some expensive appetites in the process (we first meet her swimming in an infinity pool in Thailand).
What moves her to blow the whistle and turn over her vast and damning reserves of evidence is something we may never know. The filmmakers seem content with the resting judgment that, whatever Kaiser’s motives might have been, good has and will come from them.
In the voice of David Carroll, the Parsons professor who sued Cambridge Analytica to get his data back, The Great Hack leaves us with one final, resonant question that links the film to such groundbreaking work as Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Critical thinking, long taught as a kind of magic bullet against disinformation and emotional manipulation, requires an epistemological foundation in which the truth – not yours, not mine – is ascertainable. In our current political environment in which every person is market and in which national discourse is chaotic and contradictory by design, is there any individual, intellectual defense left against the will of Big Data?
The Great Hack’s executive producer Sarah E. Johnson lives in Ulster County. Johnson has served as executive producer on a number of successful feature films, including the Academy Award-winning Birdman, The Immigrant, Devil’s Knot and more. But Johnson’s passion is socially focused, activist documentary, and she has had her hand in more than a few: The Square, Chasing Ice, The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground and Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors without Borders.
You have been involved as producer/executive producer in a lot of socially conscious documentaries. Why did you get involved with that? What is it about the form that appeals to you? The “documentary voice” is pervasive these days in podcasts, radio, publishing, streaming, but last time I checked, docs are infamous money-losers.
Interestingly, you are correct that documentaries have notoriously been money-“losers,” not made for the profit. But for that matter, so are most feature films. The only ones who’ve been making money are the agents, certainly not the investors or the creatives! It is a very dark business, and one I hope is changing dramatically.
In fact, recently some of the largest prices paid for films were at festivals for documentaries. Knock down the House sold for $10 million at Sundance. I personally started “investing” in documentaries more than 20 years ago because I saw the potential for activism, which was my main pursuit at that time: social, educational and environmental. I started producing and am now directing as an afterthought of my original intent. I do feel as though we can effect positive change utilizing documentary film and its outreach, as well as through socially conscious feature films. We have a country to save after all, or at least a democracy. Worth a try.
One thing that blows my mind about The Great Hack is how early-in on the action the filmmakers seem to be. Much of the drama unfolds on camera and literally all the principals, except the ones whose lawyers no doubt forbade it, are major voices in the film. I know film is an editor’s art and chronology can be a little plastic when it needs to be, but how did they manage this level of intimacy and access?
Jehane and Karim are personal friends and exceptional documentary filmmakers. They knew there was a story there and persisted. Even as late as the premiere at Sundance, Brittany was having second thoughts about her involvement. You as a journalist are probably as aware as anyone how difficult it can be to “catch” the moment digitally. It takes a lot of time, patience and persistence – something not a lot of people have great stores of. But it is what defines a great filmmaker or journalist from the rest. They spent months tracking people down and then getting their trust. It is also amazing how few people understand the artistry behind it.
I was raised during the height of the panic about subliminal advertising, where the most frightening prospect was that, even if we are armed with education and good critical thinking skills, we couldn’t escape this pernicious control because it bypassed the intellect. Now I look at what CA (and countless other unknown firms) do with data, and we ask the same question: Can we defeat the manipulation and control with critical thinking alone? Can it be combated with legislation?
I am currently doing a film on money in politics, and I believe our very democracy is being threatened by data misuse. Individual critical thinking is the most important thing we can develop among our children. Where and how does that happen? At the dinner table, at residential liberal arts colleges; but all of these things are under attack currently. If we can’t listen, learn, communicate, debate, then we cannot have a society where all are created equal. And what exactly is the alternative?
Data has now surpassed oil and gas as the top money-producing commodity. That should scare us all (it definitely does me). I am not one who believes that regulating data could ever really be effective, but I do believe that we should be compensated for the use of our personal data and that the Facebooks and Googles of the world should not be allowed to benefit without our knowledge. How to do that is the million-dollar question.
Some might say that the story told in The Great Hack is better suited to print, where we rely less on identifying with characters and more on facts and argument. That said, a lot of the richness of the film comes from the mysteries of Brittany Kaiser. For all the good her revelations enabled, her motives are shrouded and hinge on an unexplained moral awakening of some kind. That’s a big part of what makes it such a gripping film.
My thoughts exactly. Remember, she came from a wealthy background, and then her family lost their money. She used her connections very effectively, but I think ultimately she got so caught up because of the money. At least in her case good triumphed. I am sure she still has moments when she might regret her decision. I don’t know this for a fact, but money is a great seductress.
The Woodstock Film Festival presents a special screening of The Great Hack at Upstate Films in Woodstock on Sunday, July 21, at 1:30 p.m. Director Jehane Noujaim will be in attendance for a question-and-answer session, along with executive producer Sarah E. Johnson. Tickets cost $15.
The Great Hack
Sunday, July 21, 1:30 p.m.
Upstate Films, 132 Tinker St., Woodstock