When I was growing up, we learned that the moral cornerstone of the First Amendment — the very essence of it — is that it’s about protecting the speech you don’t like. If the Nazis aren’t allowed to march in Skokie (a major test case in the 1970s), then a treacherous principle gets laid down: that the rights protected by the First Amendment only go so far. And once that principle is established, it can be used against anyone. That, as we also learned, is why the First Amendment is the first amendment: If a society doesn’t have free speech, then its other rights will begin, over time, to fall away.
So please understand: When I say that Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s “The Great Hack,” a documentary about data-mining, fake-news propaganda, and the 2016 election (it drops on Netflix on July 24), is an intelligent but infuriating piece of liberal hand-wringing, it’s not because I’m coming at the movie from anything but a die-hard liberal position. Fake news is ominous and disturbing; data-mining is ominous and disturbing. All these things need to be scrutinized, debated, and dissected as our technologically driven fishbowl society moves forward. But “The Great Hack” is a documentary that looks, with more heat than light, at the current state of information manipulation, and what the film ends up saying, in essence, is: “This is why Donald Trump won, so there should have been a law against it!” Privacy issues aside (and I’m second to none in my concern about them), the movie, in its ham-fisted fashion, is trying to come up with some way to regulate what it despises.
The filmmakers look at the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, the British consulting firm that was launched in 2013 (as an offshoot of the strategic communication company the SLC Group) with backing from Robert Mercer, the billionaire financier of right-wing causes. (Stephen K. Bannon was one of its vice presidents.) The company, before its dissolution, claimed to have 5,000 data points on every American voter. In 2016, data gathered by Cambridge Analytica, much of it taken from Facebook, was utilized by the Ted Cruz campaign, and then, after Trump won the Republican nomination, it was funneled into the Trump campaign. (The company had already allied itself with the forces of Brexit.) The data was used to build psychographic profiles of potential voters and to target them with insidiously packaged right-wing agitprop that would push them to support conservative candidates.
In presidential politics, these techniques were pioneered, to a notable degree, by the Barack Obama campaign in 2008, and you could make the case that there isn’t all that much difference between what Obama did and what Trump did, apart from the difference in the messages being sold. (In 2012, the Obama campaign approached potential supporters through the psychological profiling known as micro-targeting.) It’s true that Trump and Cambridge Analytica committed a more serious ethical breach by using a deceptive app to mine data without users’ consent. Yet there has been an ongoing debate about this, as conservatives claim (with some justification) that the media has employed a double standard. What seems inarguable is that much of the data mined and analyzed by Cambridge Analytica was, in fact, public. After all, social media is about declaring who you are in a public forum. Gathering that data, and forming profiles out of it, isn’t illegal.
“The Great Hack” captures how voters were targeted as potential consumers whose tastes in “products” (i.e., candidates) could be manipulated by what we once called advertising, and what we now think of as propaganda. The movie is netted with questions like “How did the dream of the connected world tear us apart?” and “Who was feeding us fear, and how?” But “The Great Hack” doesn’t necessarily want to look at the real answer, which is that the liberal “dream of the connected world” was always a starry-eyed fantasy, one created and sold by technological capitalists like Steve Jobs, who marketed the dream as their own seductive form of propaganda. What the Trump campaign did — and is continuing to do — isn’t a violation of the dream; in some horrible way, it’s a fulfillment of it. The reality is that once we agreed, as individuals, to plug ours lives and identities into a social network of information bombardment, we left ourselves open to being propagandized and manipulated.
And data-mined. For all the legitimate issues of privacy invasion that are raised by the 2016 election, there does seem to be something weirdly selective about who we choose to demonize. Mark Zuckerberg, the chairman and CEO of Facebook, sold data to Cambridge Analytica, which was wrong, but we have made him the whipping boy for a social-media experiment that let the genie of fake news out of the bottle, and now there’s no way to stuff it back in. Cambridge Analytica, Russian bots and trolls: These are the forces that liberal culture, and a movie like “The Great Hack,” now blames for Trump’s victory. I’m not suggesting that Russian interference in our elections is anything to be blasé about, but the larger issue of fake news transcends these propaganda machines. Breitbart, Alex Jones, other sinister alt-right megaphones, and the millions of American trolls who are inspired by them: They were already doing the job just fine.
At one point, “The Great Hack” makes a big deal of targeting Cambridge Analytica for creating a “Defeat Crooked Hillary” meme with cartoon handcuffs, as if this were some smoking gun. Basically, that meme was a bumper sticker. I despise its message, but the legions of Middle Americans who have deluded themselves into thinking that Donald Trump represents anything but corporate interests certainly have the right to elevate “Defeat Crooked Hillary” with handcuffs into a campaign slogan. Sorry, but that’s what the First Amendment is about. It’s a right that transcends the sleaziness of data-mining.
As crafted by Karim Amer and the gifted documentary veteran Jehane Noujaim (“The Square,” “Startup.com”), “The Great Hack” lays out the nuts and bolts of the Cambridge Analytica scandal with graphic energy and skill, yet it wedges the issues into a fight-the-power paradigm that’s cloying and simplistic. Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, makes for a terrific villain: an elegant handsome “civilized” corporate opportunist, with perfect manners and no scruples. (He ultimately led the company into using “honey traps” and bribery.) But a documentary like this one also needs its whistleblower protagonist, and Brittany Kaiser, who emerges as the “conscience” of the movie, plays the role with a little too much relish. She started, as 21, as an intern on the Obama campaign, helping to run its Facebook page, then became the director of business development for Cambridge Analytica. When the company was called on the carpet by the pink-haired data scientist Christopher Wylie, she decided she’d had enough and decided to come clean and clear her name. She says that she got tired of “making excuses for old white men.”
In “The Great Hack,” we see her watching Alexander Nix’s testimony at a hearing and snorting at his denials. But Brittany Kaiser, who at Cambridge Analytica enjoyed such perks as having the keys to Steve Bannon’s townhouse, clearly liked being at the center of the action, and she still does. In the flamboyance of her guilt (and, mostly, her newfound moral superiority), she invests Cambridge Analytica with more power than it had. So does the movie, which is all too eager to point its finger at a company that used data to target “persuadables” and sell them lies. But what gets lost in that accusation is the agency of the voters themselves. Ultimately, they got bamboozled not because of micro-targeting but because they fell prey to a charismatic huckster named Donald Trump. Until liberal culture comes up with an irresistible alternative to him, we can blame the messenger of fake news all we want, but the fakery can’t be legislated away. It can only be defeated by a return to the power of truth.