Like most people, you’d probably never heard the name “Cambridge Analytica,” or were even aware of the company’s existence before March of 2018, when the New York Times and the Guardian began reporting on the firm’s harvesting of private Facebook user information. Unless, of course, you were a member of the Trump campaign’s team — then you were well aware of what these data analysts were doing for Ted Cruz’s bid for the Presidency back in 2015. Thanks to their targeting of certain types of potential voters, the junior U.S. senator from Texas was leading the pack of Republican candidates. So the Trump folks hired Cambridge and its London-based parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, to join their camp. Using data that was acquired through dodgy backdoor means, they began targeting swing-state voters with ads, politically skewed posts and outright misinformation. Do we really need to remind you of what happened next?
Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s The Great Hack is happy to lay all of this out for viewers, from corporate mission statement to mass data-rights infringement, journalistic exposé to public outcry. It’s also the sort of doc that values providing a service over formally overwhelming you — consider this both a statement of advocacy and a heads-up. Yes, there’s a score of urgently tinkled piano keys that occasionally shows up to heighten tension, and editors Erin Barnett and Carlos Rojas have done their best to give this recounting of Cambridge’s social-media screw-over the flavor of a real-life conspiracy thriller. Tweets appear onscreen; so do texts and DMs. Worst-of-2016 montages give way to super-pixellated screens, all the better to emphasize how, to the powers that be and those that enable them, all we are is data in the wind.
But for the most part, the filmmakers have given us a fairly straight look at what happened, pitched somewhere between an “everything you need to know about X” explainer and the-sky-is-already-falling warning. It allows entry via a few key players: David Carroll, a college professor who took Cambridge Analytica to court over trying to reclaim his data; Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who doggedly went after the company (and experienced firsthand how viral, doctored videos had IRL ramifications); Paul Hilder, a political technologist who also documented the fallout; and Brittany Kaiser, a former Obama intern-turned-“posh conservative” who worked on Cambridge’s “Leave E.U.” and Trump propaganda campaigns, then later spilled the beans on what was going on. She’s one of the doc’s more contentious figures, seen waltzing around Burning Man in a wig and granting an interview while lounging in a resort pool “somewhere in Thailand.” Her self-proclaimed status as a whistleblower is debatable. You want to cheer her when she watches Mark Zuckerberg give testimony at a Congressional hearing and calls bullshit on him, then jeer her when she utters some blasé comments a few scenes later. She’s last seen trying to retrieve her luggage after fleeing a hotel in a panic.
You know you’re in the hands of professionals here — Noujaim was a director or co-director on such solid nonfiction works as Startup.com (2001), Control Room (2004), and The Square (2013) — even if the proceedings sometimes come off like Muckraking Moviemaking 101. There are sections that make you feel like you’re stuck in the middle of reading an article from The Atlantic about the very doc you’re watching. Yet it gets the job done. You leave with a very clear sense of how one company aided and abetted the selling of democracy down the river, not to mention having your fingernails chewed down to the quick. Even people who had been following the Cambridge Analytica case will be soberly reminded that only the names have changed. The threat still remains. That, and the fact that 2020 is a lot closer than we’d like to think.