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The Great Con

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The Great Con

A Netflix documentary on Cambridge Analytica reminds us that voter preferences, not data manipulation, determined the 2016 election outcome. August 9, 2019
Arts and Culture
Technology and Innovation

The Great Hack, directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim

“How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?” asks David Carroll, an associate professor at the New School, in The Great Hack, a new Netflix documentary that tells the story of Cambridge Analytica. Carroll has long worried about the vulnerabilities of online data exposure and how it will affect his children’s future. After the 2016 presidential election, he “realized that it had already happened on our watch.”

The film could not be timelier. It was released on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced a $5 billion fine for Facebook as part of an investigation relating to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. More generally, concern over the political and economic power of Big Tech companies has intensified, with questions like Carroll’s being voiced by pundits, policymakers, regulators, presidential candidates, and even some of the Internet’s founding fathers.

In these debates, Cambridge Analytica has become a byword for the misuse of our data by shadowy, unaccountable operators in pursuit of nefarious political ends. The Great Hack will likely confirm viewers’ worst fears about who holds their data and what they can do with it. The film also raises valid, if familiar, questions about our online lives: What good are privacy agreements if no one reads them? Can Facebook be trusted to keep the promises that it makes to users? What policy responses might give people more control over their digital footprints?

The documentary leaves the impression that Trump and Brexit are evidence of a glitch in Western democracy—and that the glitch can be explained by Cambridge Analytica’s wrongdoing. In the U.S., the Trump campaign hired the firm after its success working on Ted Cruz’s unsuccessful primary bid. In the U.K., the company appears to have worked for Leave.EU, an unofficial pro-Brexit campaign group, in the runup to the referendum on EU membership. The filmmakers deliberately blur the line between two distinct issues: on the one hand, who has access to information about us online, and, on the other, what they can do with it. Along the way, the film’s journalists, activists, and whistleblowers appear to swallow unquestioningly the sales pitch of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix.

No Hollywood casting agent could improve on this rakish old Etonian in the role of evil election hacker. Nix boasts about his company’s capabilities, whether crudely put to undercover journalists posing as potential clients or in a slick, Steve Jobs-style presentation to uncritical believers. At the heart of Nix’s pitch—and the claims made by his critics—is a cutting-edge weapon of mass persuasion, a “psychographic” tool that could use data about individuals online to identify undecided voters and their personality traits and target them with formidably specific messages.

The data allowing Cambridge Analytica to target voters came from Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University. He built an online application called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which more than 300,000 people used to complete a personality survey. The app collected data about individuals and—arguably the most alarming part of the story—information about their nonconsenting Facebook friends. The result: a giant dataset of tens of millions of Facebook users that, as whistleblower Christopher Wylie puts it, could be used to manipulate voters’ inner demons.

The problem, absent from both Nix’s patter and The Great Hack, is that the dataset wasn’t very useful—or at least, not useful in the way it was supposed to be. To believe the hype is to see Nix’s psychographic tool as political campaigning’s equivalent of a cure for cancer. In fact, it resembles Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos devices: a mysterious black box falling some ways short of the grand claims of its fake-it-till-you-make-it creator. The advertising and marketing industries have always claimed to have special techniques to manipulate the public mind; that’s their sales pitch. Such claims are neither new nor unprecedented.

In a recent podcast interview, author Michael Lewis asked Kogan if his data experiment was successful. His answer applies equally to questions about the effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic tool. “How often are we right?” asked Kogan rhetorically. “For what percentage of people do we get all five personality categories correct? We found it was like 1 percent.”

Cambridge Analytica now looks less like the great hack and more like the great con. After Trump’s unexpected victory, Nix and his team were thrilled. The Great Hack quotes backslapping emails and shows photos of Nix and company drinking celebratory shots and champagne. But they hadn’t discovered a way to hack democracy, only a way to claim, plausibly, that they had done so—and to get fabulously rich.

Meantime, those clinging to the idea that the electoral shocks of 2016 can be explained through data breaches must confront a messier truth: the outcomes they consider abominable occurred not because of a great hack but because millions of voters made different choices. That’s a feature, not a bug, of a democracy.

Photo: David Tran/iStock

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