The Great Hack: Chaos for Profit

The weaponization of data

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Netflix's new documentary exposes the Facebook data mining scandal and more

The Great Hack, a new Netflix documentary directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, is not to be missed. The film explores the question of data rights: privacy, ownership, exploitation, and cultural manipulation. To make a complex story powerful and accessible, the filmmakers used the clever device of following one man’s quest to impel British courts to force Cambridge Analytica (the villains behind ruthless Facebook-based digital campaigns for Ted Cruz, Brexit, and Donald Trump—not to mention elections in Australia, India, Africa, etc.) to return his data and disclose how it was used. The film is beautifully made and deeply frightening.

For me, it was also an ah-ha moment. I have always been fascinated by the enduring social truth that time obliterates certainty. In every era, people know things that are overturned by subsequent discoveries—often, discoveries delayed by an ambient certainty that blocks clear sight. Examples are easy to come by. We all know how people were sure the earth is flat until experience proved it round, but in the meantime, lots of people get punished for questioning the official certainty. (And yes, I know. Thanks to the powerful whack factor of the internet, there are still people—including a number of professional athletes—who insist the earth is flat.) Doctors were certain stomach ulcers were generated by diet and stress until in 1982, Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that most ulcers were caused by Helicobacter pylori, cured by medication. And so on and on.

Nearly a decade ago, a chapter I wrote was included in the anthology What We See: Advancing The Observations of Jane Jacobs, who put forward mid-Twentieth Century critiques and theories about urban planning that dared to declare the nakedness of the inhumane and mechanistic ideas that had blighted once-vibrant cityscapes. My essay explored nine different ways our own habits of perception affect our view of the culture of cities and their possible futures, offering nine different lenses through which to perceive cities.

In the section called “The lens of the uncolonized mind,” I explained:

The chief handicap of the colonized mind is the habit of approaching any subject with readymade ideas of what is worth noticing and knowing. The fence enclosing worthy knowledge can be staked in varied terrain, but it always constrains. What types of information have been valorized by those in authority, or those in fashion? What types of information are unworthy because they cannot be weighed and measured by the instruments our numbers-crazy culture deems accurate? What is considered subjective, what objective, and how is the difference made to matter?

When we observe human beings in the shared habitat of cities, nothing is irrelevant. The challenge is to hold as much information in awareness as possible, allowing patterns to emerge rather than imposing them. As I began writing this chapter, scientists “discovered” a vegetarian spider. It is not that Bagheera kiplingi had never been identified before Christopher J. Meehan observed it during fieldwork in Mexico. But as the spider’s preferred home was a species of acacia typically swarming with ants—and as all previous spiders had been carnivores—investigators prior to Meehan simply concluded the spider had chosen the plant as a likely place to find a succulent ant dinner. Meehan paid open-eyed attention long enough to notice Bagheera kiplingi opting at mealtime for leaf tips rather than ant flesh. A thirsty mind freed from normative ideas of knowledge is the most fertile learning environment of all.

The Great Hack reminded me of how the principle applies to our political moment, and at what cost.

Although I am not a voracious consumer of news—too much “if it bleeds, it leads”; too much confirmation bias, feeding us what we already believe; too much availability cascade, inflating trivia through repetition until it seems major and inarguable—I would have had to be in suspended animation to miss the avalanche of analysis of the political polarization, demonizing, hate-mongering, and distortion that marks the moment. Subtle or gross, attempts to explain escalating class conflict, racism, misogyny and other factors are ubiquitous.

The Great Hack showed me how the energy driving this extreme polarization and animus may be something quite different: an artifact of late capitalism, in which capturing and exploiting data is the road to riches for unscrupulous entrepreneurs like Cambridge Analytica. Simply stated, CA obtained Facebook data that allowed them to claim they had “5,000 data points on every American voter.” Working for campaigns, they selected likely undecided voters, then inundated them with purpose-built social media (the film includes a montage of “crooked Hilary” material breathtaking in scope and vitriol) designed to persuade that propaganda was not opinion but gospel. Brittany Kaiser, a CA operative who figures prominently in the film, put it concisely: “We targeted those whose minds we thought we could change until they thought the way we wanted them to.”

They made money by skewing election results; they skewed election results by appropriating data from you, me, and everyone else on social media—”data mining”—feeding us lies designed to turn us against our own interests and toward the interests of their clients. (I would call this “data weaponization.”) It’s a vast and lucrative version of a schoolyard game in which whispered lies create antagonism that had no other reason to happen: Jane is told that “Johnny said you have cooties” and Johnny is told the opposite, then the instigators stand back and watch them fight.

“You can’t put the feathers back into the pillow,” goes an old saying that counsels considering consequences before they unfold. Several featured characters in The Great Hack have found their lives hijacked by discovering the scope and pernicious character of CA and its ilk, turning away from the pursuits that formerly occupied them and toward obsessively addressing this crisis of culture. I can see several things that would help: more such journalism, court cases, data-rights organizing, fining Facebook into oblivion, and so on. But the main thing must unfold in our own awareness: the best antidote is surely knowing this is happening—knowing our terrible polarization is fed by the social-media equivalent of poking a stick into a nest of snakes—and refusing to allow our minds to be colonized by those fomenting chaos for their own profit.

I’ve touched on just a small part of what The Great Hack reveals. See the film and decide for yourself.

Van Morrison’s “Who Was That Masked Man?” performed by Carleen Anderson.

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