Democracy is under attack and data is the weapon being used to drive wedges in our polarized society. That was the message that Hillary Clinton delivered at a New York City screening of the Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” on Friday night. The former secretary of state argued that tech giants such as Facebook need to fact check political ads that run on their platforms in order to ensure that elections remain free and fair.
“[Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg should pay a price for what he is doing to our democracy,” said Clinton, adding. “Part of our problem, those of us who are appalled by this war on truth and this fake news which is truly surrounding us these days, is we’re not very good at combating it. It’s hard because you’re up against algorithms, plus all these other powerful forces, it’s really hard.”
Clinton, who was joined on stage at the Crosby Street Hotel by filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwallai, advocated creating “a whole new agenda of legislation and regulation” to govern how companies such as Facebook and Google exploit the data of its users.
“The Great Hack” examines Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political consulting firm that played a critical role in Donald Trump’s campaign by using data gleaned from Facebook to target persuadable voters in key swing states. Much of that outreach involved bombarding them with ads that were either factually challenged or that used racially charged wedge issues to encourage turnout. The data had been harvested without the consent of some 30 million Facebook users. “The Great Hack” argues that the same methods were deployed to convince voters in the U.K. to support Brexit, as well as in political campaigns in Trinidad and Tobago and Kenya.
“It’s not just about one election, it’s about so many of the choices that we’re facing in society right now,” Clinton said. “The use of our data to manipulate us, to make money off of us, is really one of the cardinal challenges we face…this is our information, but people seem to forget that they should demand to own it.”
Clinton was supposed to be moderating the panel at the posh affair, which drew a crowd of awards season voters and media heavyweights such as Bill Moyers, “Paradise Lost” filmmaker Joe Berlinger, and “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear. However, the filmmakers and Cadwallai seemed eager to turn the tables on the former Democratic standard bearer, knowing that she had first-hand experience of what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a data-driven maelstrom.
“I’m like the hit-and-run victim, who you find on the side of the road,” Clinton joked at one point.
The filmmakers said their film has an urgent message given that the 2020 presidential election is just around the corner. They labeled “The Great Hack,” as a “horror film.”
“The issue is people don’t understand the gravity yet and you say ‘data rights’ and ‘privacy rights’ and people’s eyes kind of glaze over, but it really is about a war on truth,” said Noujaim. “It is an information war and we are so in the middle of it.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” added Amer. “Some things in this country should no longer be blue or red.”
Putting on her journalist hat, Cadwallai asked Clinton if she thought that Zuckerberg’s White House sitdown with Donald Trump and private meetings with conservative leaders such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, had played a role in Facebook’s decision not to alter its political ad policy. Facebook maintains that barring ads would violate freedom of speech.
“I can’t draw any conclusions about closed door meetings, not only with Trump but with Tucker Carlson and with Breitbart and with many others that have been going on at Facebook headquarters,” said Clinton. “But if I were of a conspiratorial mindset, I might suggest that there seems to be some connection…I don’t understand the mindset that we currently see operating with Zuckerberg.”
Clinton praised Twitter for refusing political ads, but said she that Facebook’s policy threatens the idea of free and fair elections because it has become such a critical source of news for Americans. Ultimately, however, she suggested that Silicon Valley companies that traffic in data mining will also suffer.
“It was an open society that enabled technology to be birthed and now be so dominant in our lives,” said Clinton. “It’s like a bad fairy tale. They are going to kill that golden goose. They are going to create a political system that is going to either come down too hard on them and squeeze them in ways that are not productive or continue to have a laissez faire attitude toward them where they continue to undermine our privacy and our freedom and our democracy. It could not be a more imperative challenge for us.”