The Great Hack Review: Big Data Equals Big Digital Propaganda

By Daniel Hart
Published: July 22, 2019 (Last updated: May 16, 2023)
Netflix Documentary The Great Hack


The Great Hack is overwhelmingly insightful regarding data exploitations to influence democracy, but it could have benefitted from opposing views.

What needs to be understood before watching Netflix documentary The Great Hack, which will undoubtedly open up many layers of conversation, is that history repeats itself. Yes, it’s an easy saying to state, but it’s a common trend that is true. Propaganda is not new just like racism is not new; flyers, newspapers and radio used to be the primary source to disseminate information to encourage behavioural change, now it is big data. It’s not revolutionary; it’s just a new source. Social data is a more extensive, horrifying scope that can be the decider in elections.

Netflix’s The Great Hack primarily focuses on Cambridge Analytica, the infamous firm embroiled in legal action in their involvement in using Facebook data to target behavioural change in the Trump campaign and Brexit. The Netflix documentary does a thorough job in explaining how their methodology works, in mining data and targeting individuals that are indecisive with their vote. In the recent Brexit film, you may remember the Leave campaign getting approached by a fictional version of Cambridge Analytica promising a volume of votes.

The Great Hack is overwhelmingly insightful. It knuckles down on the professional relationships, the cogs in the machine that allowed millions of Americans to be consumed by propaganda-type advertising when casually swiping Facebook and remembering it is their Grandmother’s birthday. I remember during the Brexit campaign being overloaded with anti-EU advertising and how aggressive the campaigning had become.

The Netflix documentary answers that frustrating question; how did Hilary lose the election with a surplus of 2.9m votes over Trump. The propaganda did not target the popular vote; it targeted ways to swing states in their favor — it was a weapon used solely to win the college vote.

The Great Hack becomes a defining documentary when it brings Brittany Kaiser to the fold, a now-famous whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica who decided to use her knowledge of the game for good, rather than trying to hide away from the scrutiny. Brittany Kaiser is interesting for several reasons, but what compelled the most in the feature is her CV — the ex-business development director once worked on the Obama campaign, then dipped her toes into Human Rights organizations, and then partied with the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Brittany Kaiser is a confusing person to grasp — what a reckless, non-directional resume.

The Netflix documentary purposefully keeps Brittany Kaiser’s position vague — her efforts are diluted because the feature never truly wants you to decide on whether she’s earnest or not. Brittany is interviewed “somewhere in Thailand” for some parts of The Great Hack, demonstrating her paranoia in trying to make her profile elusive. It’s hard to form an overall view.

The Great Hack does well in collating footage, interviews, text messages, and video snippets to form a picture of how Big Data works, and how it can be used in corrupt ways to suit any organization’s agenda. Facebook is at the forefront of the documentary; there’s a battle between who was indeed at fault, with The Great Hack leaning slightly towards Cambridge Analytica, which is an easy win considering the company made itself bankrupt.

I think that’s where The Great Hack loses some credibility in that it does not aggressively assess Facebook’s position in all this apart from Brittany Kaiser’s reaction to Mark Zuckerberg’s answers to the investigatory committee. The Netflix documentary assesses the social media giant on the surface, as a facilitator rather than a major player in the most prominent political swings in recent history.

The Great Hack misses direct opposing views, which is ironic, considering the documentary openly discusses how political figures are using data to change the behavior of a person. The documentary would have benefitted from a few more professional figures to give their view on the subject itself — rather than doing a Facebook vs Cambridge Analytica problem.

Analyzing the documentary as a whole, Netflix’s The Great Hack will be one of the defining documentaries of the year, but not best. It’s great for a high-level view on how we ended up in the political mess we are in now.

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