How many times have you been on Facebook and seen an ad for a product you were just shopping around for? That’s Facebook collecting user data for use as a marketing tool. But as you know, there’s a deeper darker side to Facebook data, the harvesting that is done to shape our impressions of the world around us.
In The Great Hack, directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim put a face on these invisible forces and highlight why personal data has become the most valuable commodity in the world. What started as a look at the Sony studio hack turned into a bigger story leading to the Leave vote in Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, and then to the way Facebook ads and data mining is chipping away at othe integrity of democracy, targeting the reachables as Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee says.
The Great Hack is a fascinating deep-dive exploration for anyone navigating today’s online maze. I caught up with Amer and Noujaim to talk about the origins, scope, and goal of their essential film.
This began as a look at the Sony hack. How did the journey expand from there to you exploring a wider range of victims?
Jehane: The best films always take a number of twists and turns. If you’re making a film that is going to be surprising and new and fresh to an audience, then it’s going to be surprising to you as well.
We don’t set out to make a film where we know all of the answers and where we have a thesis that we want to prove, and then find the people to prove that thesis.
We find an area of a topic or a question or characters that we are intrigued by, that will take us into worlds that we don’t understand and that we’re curious about and that is hitting on the zeitgeist of the world, and then try to get on the inside of that story.
The film started with the Sony hack because at the time, we thought this was fascinating, how a physical hack is now on a world stage. The president himself is involved and making an announcement about it. It involves the entertainment world with which we are connected. It involves a political world and technology in a fascinating way. We quickly saw that we spent time on it. It’s an interesting story, but it wasn’t really addressing the hack that we felt was the most important hack which was the question of our own free will. That really came to us when the election happened, and when Brexit happened. We started to see that the more interesting question was the manipulation that was happening towards voters in these elections by using micro-targeting and data to reach people. We felt that an invisible story was the more interesting one to follow.
I find it so interesting that people freak out when they see targeted ads, unaware of how it all works. What I thought was great was how you put a face on the dark side of data.
Jehane :That isn’t to say there isn’t a positive side to it. There’s what is happening with the research being done with data collection in the medical field.
Karim: Or with Netflix. You can watch whatever you want.
Jehane: We felt it gets scarier. I made Control Room in 2004, and I was obsessed with this topic because I have family living in the US and in Egypt. If you watch news channels on the exact same way. The exact same story whether you were watching Fox News, CNN or Al-Jazeera. I felt The Great Hack was Control Room on steroids because people in the same household are not able to have a conversation because their newsfeeds are so completely different. They’re going further and further down a rabbit hole with their own personalized understanding of reality. I think that’s why in democracy, it’s necessary for people to have some kind of ability to discuss and to find common ground, to question, and have some concept of what the truth is. It felt like we were heading to a place where our democracy is under threat.
Then you get to sit down with the Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers.
Jehane: We had Matt and Carol and Chris about a year before that story came out. We were reaching out to other ex-employees of Cambridge Analytica. We first met David who didn’t have anything to do with Cambridge Analytica. In a story which is somewhat invisible and has a deficit of language – even as we’re talking and trying to put words to these questions, it’s a new topic. It’s a new world and there’s definitely a language deficit. We wanted to find characters that could humanize the story and bring a public audience into the story in a way that was understandable, interesting and entertaining. So that usually involves finding somebody who is on a journey and about to jump off a cliff and you as a filmmaker are going to jump off that cliff with them. That was the case of David who was trying to get his data back and trying to figure out what had happened with his data. He was trying to sue Cambridge Analytica in order to do that. He was on this journey. He was going into this journey to figure this out. At the same time, you had Brittany Kaiser who had first contacted Trump. She was somebody who we were put in touch with. We had a fascinating phone call with her, and Karim flew to Thailand to meet her. That’s the first scene you see of her in the pool. She was kind of in hiding from the world while she was trying to figure out what her next move was.
Karim, talk about meeting Brittany Kaiser and flying to meet her.
I think the challenge in the film had been that as Jehane was saying, there’s a deficit of language in the space. We were looking for the spaces to inhabit the story. As you said, there’s this indifference by a lot of people who think what’s the big deal? I get targeted by shoe ads. I get targeted by Netflix. People didn’t see a problem with the way surveillance capitalism works. That’s the crux of what this is about.
With Brittany, here was somebody who began as a Democrat and was idealistic and saw the power of this technology being used in the political arenas to inspire and to emit this message of hope under Obama. Then ended up on a very different side of it winning the Trump contract, pitching Trump and then being at the center of Cambridge Analytica with both Brexit and 2016 in the USA.
That to me was really fascinating. How can someone go from here to there and was now about to go somewhere else? We may tell different stories, and although they are non-fiction, we follow the same principles of narrative structure that a fictional film would have. You have a character journey, and you can follow and you have a hopeful catharsis of some kind.
The difference with us is we don’t get to know exactly what’s going to happen, and the timeline is out of our control. With Brittany, you could feel the stakes. She was alone. She was terrified, and she was about to do something bold. She is definitely a complicated person and people have a lot of different views about her moral position. In an era where our behavior is being shaped by amoral algorithms, we should be careful how we judge other people’s ethical positions. Often times, we’re unwilling to see how complicit we are in this whole system and I think it’s something that should be thought of. In Brittany’s arc, what I found interesting was that she went on a journey of redemption.
In an era where it seems that not only are we at the most polarized place in modern history in the US and parts of Europe, we’re finding evidence that the algorithms on some of those platforms are incentivizing polarization. There’s a polarized economy that’s being created. I think that in this kind of environment, we need stories of redemption and we need to understand how redemption works as a society. What better way of doing so than through someone who can take us from Brexit to Assange to Trump and to Muller. For one person to unpack all of that, is unique.
At a time when we’ve been living from headline to headline, it was refreshing to follow someone who took us on this adventure into some of the most complicated news stories of our day. We’d been in the middle of news stories before. With The Square, that was a huge story at the time. Even though the technology was a big part of that and was helping catalyze and mobilize Democratic movements from helping amplify people’s freedom of expression, helping organize the right to assemble and helping create this interesting thing on digital square, there was still a physicality. People were showing up in physical space, and there was a battle over the meaning of what this space was.
With this, it was something happening across so many worlds and boundaries. It was happening at a time when we were seeing this showdown between nation-states and tech states over who really was in control at a time when it’s unclear which is more important, the social contract or the user agreement.
How did you manage to make sense of it all, when it’s such a fast-moving world? Every two seconds something was changing,
Karim: It was very difficult, and that’s why it took a long time to make. That’s why it took a long time to figure out how to end the film. Access kept coming and going and closing and opening. A lot of the access happened right before Sundance and that changed the film. We continued to film after Sundance. I got additional access and re-edited the movie. What you saw is a completely different film.
That’s what happened with The Square. We released the film at Sundance. Right before Sundance with The Square, the story started changing. The ending at that point was everyone was supporting Morsi, but were wary, and by Sundance, people were becoming warier. By May, Morsi had been deposed and so the entire thing flipped.
We had a similar situation, and what we found out was that Cambridge Analytica is an important story, a much larger story for us to understand in which Facebook is primarily shaping our lives and affecting the democratic process. The film is much more about Facebook than it used to be because history demands it so. We end in a place where there’s a passing of the baton from Cambridge Analytica to Facebook.
Jehani: In the end, all of these films are about people and people taking you to the center of these debates. As long as that person is leading you on an adventure where you’re learning and taking you into rooms that you would never otherwise get to understand or see, and they take you to the center of these debates. You keep following, and you follow until their journey has come to a conclusion.
Sometimes, that’s difficult to see when the world around them is changing so fast. I think in this process of making a film like this, what we rely on is a belief that what you’re creating is an incredibly important basis for conversation. We are often told, “It’s incredible how you manage to capture the zeitgeist of the time and make these films that are so timely and timeless.” But that involves a team. These films are not made by Karim and I. That involves both a very flexible and very talented team. That goes from the characters we’re following who give us their trust, and that’s a real gift. They trust that we are going to be authentic to their story and be truthful.
The biggest compliment that each one of the characters paid us when we showed them the film was that they felt it was an authentic and truthful representation of what they had been through. There are our editors who are not making a film where all of the footage is in the can and they have set hours to work with. The story is constantly evolving, and they need to be quick on their feet. It’s constant communication between the shooting and the editing so that we’re doing this dance together where we are both filming and editing at the same time, and they’re giving us the space to do that. There are the executives that we worked with – Adam, Lisa and Kate from Netflix – who really rolled with the punches in terms of, while the story started with the Sony Hack and then it evolved and evolved. They trusted that we would end up with a seminal story about our time and the questions we face.
The same thing happened with The Square. Most people finished filming when Mubarak stepped down. The real story happened when the cameras left. After the dictator left, the real question was, “How do you build a government? Then what? How do you move forward?” That’s where the story was. In this case, it became a bigger and international story. It became a story about the future of our democracy and our free will, which is a much bigger story than the Sony hack that we initially pitched. It was a story about everything. It’s a terrifying story about the big questions we’re facing.
We made The Square where we say technology be an extremely important tool for social change. We’re definitely not advocating for a revolution. This is in no way anti-technology. We haven’t gotten rid of our accounts, but we should be aware. There needs to change, but there needs to be an awareness.
Karim: It’s about a larger conversation that we need to have. It’s about these sites, and they remind us of the fragility of governments in the era of borderless monopolistic tech platforms. It’s the fragility of our common values. It’s about the fragility of the truth in the midst of weaponized information. It’s important for us to think as a society and what do we do in the face of that fragility. Do we cower and resort to fear? Or do we do something about it? Whose responsibility is it?
The technology platforms that for so long have had an identity of doing no evil, have become some of the most concentration of powers in the world. We need to rethink about how we’re going to move forward and what accountability looks like.
I hope the film can be the beginning of an awareness in that direction. Part of that awareness can be from our job as artists to keep making the invisible visible.
The Great Hack is on limited release and streaming on Netflix