It would appear that the furore over Facebook / Cambridge Analytica and manipulation of elections hasn’t died down that much. I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called The Great Hack, and I’d recommend that you do too, if you can.
The programme provided a lot of the backstory to who was involved, how and when, as told by some of the people who were there. This included:
- Brittany Kaiser was the Director for Business Development at Cambridge Analytica, and had previously worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. She comes across as very naive at times, though towards the end of the show it becomes obvious that the penny drops and the seriousness of the situation is made apparent;
- David Caroll, a professor who not unreasonably asked for a copy of all data that Cambridge Analytica held on him. If not for him, the whole situation might not have escalated as it did;
- Julian Whitehead, the former CFO at Cambridge Analytica. I was concerned at how little he seemed bothered by the morality of what was carried out by his company; and
- Carole Cadwalladr is an investigative journalist at The Guardian and Observer newspapers in the UK. She did a lot of the digging and legwork, trying to find people who would and could talk to her about things that had gone on. Carole was the reporter who broke the news, and who continued to find and release fresh information as time went on.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the programme was the revelation that Cambridge Analytica had been involved in some way in elections around the world since the mid-2000s. There was an expose of how their work influenced the elections in Trinidad and Tobago which showed how manipulative Facebook posts could be, as well as discussions of how the same techniques were used both for the Brexit campaign and for Trump’s election in 2016.
It was notable that Alexander Nix, the former head of Cambridge Analytica, declined to be interviewed, and also that Julian Assange / Wikileaks should be a part of the story. I didn’t know until I watched this that Steve Bannon, erstwhile Strategist at the White House under Donald Trump and former executive chairman of Breitbart news was a cofounder of Cambridge Analytica, or that Nigel Farage was closely linked with him.
It’s worth checking out Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk in Silicon Valley, where she asks the heads of the big tech companies whether they are happy with the world they are creating. She suggests that it is now impossible to have a free and fair election because of abuse of their technologies.
She illustrated this ably by talking to people in South Wales to ask why they voted for Brexit: many had said they worried about immigration (she also spoke to someone who thought they were the only immigrants in the area), while others said the EU had done nothing for them yet they were surrounded by construction and facilities paid for by well advertised EU funding.
I’ve mentioned the perils of taking part in online quizzes and personality profiles “for fun” on Facebook. This documentary provides the evidence of how that information can be harvested and used to target specific people – never mind groups – who are deemed to be persuadable and who can swing an election result one way or another.