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‘The Great Hack’ paints a chilling picture of how our online data is being used as a psychological warfare weapon

Isn't it unnerving when you're talking to a friend online about a prospective trip and moments later you start seeing advertisements related to the destination? It's hard to shake the feeling that you're being watched.

What if a data firm in defense sector that once engaged in communications warfare in Afghanistan to persuade young men to not join Al-Qaida decided to sell its services to political parties across the world? What if they had all your online data and turned it into a weapon against you? To persuade you, influence you, and to ultimately change your behavior?

Sounds like an episode straight out of Netflix’s unsettling Black Mirror series, doesn’t it? But we are not talking about fiction here. This is real. It has happened to most of us. This is very real. For those who are not acquainted with the intricacies of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that broke open last year, 'The Great Hack' is a must-watch. For those who do, the documentary would serve as a chilling horror narrative as they realize how closely they were targeted in the scandal, with their data still out there for firms to exploit and abuse.

Isn't it unnerving when you're talking to a friend online about a prospective trip and moments later you start seeing advertisements related to the destination? It's hard to shake the feeling that you're being watched and listened to - your every digital move being monitored. The documentary goes deeper than just ads, it shows how hundreds of thousands of people's behavior can be manipulated through targeted content, and the outcomes are for everyone to see today -- with the 2016 US elections and Brexit being at the top of the manipulation system’s outcome.

Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr looks at a Cambridge Analytica expose piece before its publication. (Netflix)

'Last year data surpassed oil in value – it’s the most valuable asset on Earth'

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica nexus did not just interfere with the democratic process of the United States and Britain. The documentary reveals that the same data firm sold its manipulation services to political parties across the world, ultimately winning them elections, with India, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, Ghana, and Malaysia being some of them.

The documentary’s confounding narrative is relayed through three central protagonists: David Carroll, a professor of digital media at New York’s Parsons School of Design who firmly believes “data rights are human rights”; Carole Cadwalladr, a Guardian journalist who first broke the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story; and Brittany Kaiser, an unlikely whistleblower and former director of business development at Cambridge Analytica whose revelations rendered the scandal wide open.

'We are the commodity'

Carroll, who had been probing the activities of Cambridge Analytica for years, launched a year-long battle across continents as he filed a case against the infamous data firm in Britain, forcing it to give his data back. His quest was to know how the firm harvested all the data and what exactly it did with it.

David Carroll can be seen pictured in one of the stills of the documentary. (Netflix)

“It began with a dream of a connected world,” Carroll says. The data acquired through it was being mined into a trillion-dollar industry. We were turned into a commodity as we gave direct knowledge of our emotional pulse to the buyers — what we fear, what we like, our credit card swipes, all our interactions, and our personal messages.

“We are the commodity,” the professor adds. “We were so in love, no one read the terms and conditions.”

"Our brand was 'Defeat Crooked Hillary’”

Cambridge Analytica, under SCL in Britain, was at one point “the world’s leading data-driven communications firm.” The former CFO of the firm Julian Wheatland thought that theirs was a “company of great innovation,” while the CEO Alexander Nix focused its services more on building strong elections business.

"After Obama successfully utilized the internet during his campaign, we provided an opportunity for Republicans to make the most out of it,” Nix can be heard saying in the documentary, without adding that his approach was to do it through illegal means, through stealing people’s information.

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz availed the services of the firm during his 2015 campaign. Cruz went from the lowest-rated in the 2016 polls to the last man standing against Trump, "his success in Iowa is positive proof of our methodology.”

It was then that the Trump campaign signed a contract with Cambridge Analytica. The firm, by then, had already spent 14 months working on Cruz’s campaign collecting data and research on the voters. They gave hundreds of thousands of people online surveys and collected crucial data from them: their personality, behavior etc. — and then the data firm created highly specific content to influence their behavior. The company knew exactly which states to target.

“Our brand was ‘Defeat Crooked Hillary,” the CFO says, it was indicative of "she belongs behind bars,” we designed it that way. “We just put it into the bloodstream of the internet and watched it grow as it infiltrated the online community.”

The former CFO of Cambridge Analytica. (Netflix)

"After the election win, we could see the path to becoming a billion-dollar company, we were on the top of the world,” Wheatland says.

The documentary’s directors — Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim — did not refrain from alleging how Trump used Brexit as the petri dish for his own presidential campaign. The film states the links between leave EU, Cambridge Analytica, and Trump campaign through multiple influential figures connected with each other: Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Alexander Nix, and Aaron Banks to name a few.

“Cambridge Analytica is a full-service propaganda machine”

A significant break in the scandal came when whistleblower Christopher Wyle, a former data scientist at Cambridge Analytica, began revealing the firm’s secrets.

He revealed, in his testimony at the UK Parliament, that the firm used personality tests to mine data from a Facebook user and their friends, including their status updates, their friends' data, their updates, likes, even personal messages. All this was done to build a psychological profile.

Wyle said that using the company’s services was like taking drugs during an Olympics game to win. “It’s not fair play, it’s cheating.”

“People had no idea this was happening, it was a grossly unethical experiment. You are playing with the psychology of the entire country without their consent or awareness, you are affecting a nation’s democratic process,” Wyle says.

Facebook, a few days later, revealed that knew about the data collection for two years, with nearly 50 million people's data breached.

"I have evidence that Brexit and Trump campaign was conducted illegally"

The former director of business development of Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser, became the key to major revelations in the scandal. The whistleblower can be seen stating in the film that she took the drastic decision because she did not want to be remembered on the wrong side of history.  She revealed that her company particularly targeted “The Persuadables,” they identified the voters who were on the fence or hadn’t made up their minds about whom to vote for.

Kaiser can be seen here days before her testimony at a US government committee. (Netflix)

“We identified voters’ triggers, and if they were on the fence then we persuaded them to choose,” Kaiser says, as the documentary raises a pertinent point if it was really the voters’ choice?

“We didn't target every voter equally, we targeted those whose minds we thought we could change… We targeted the swing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida,” she says, adding that her creative team designed personalized content to trigger these people.

"We bombarded them with content until they saw the world the way we wanted them to, until they voted for our candidate,” says with the whistleblowers admitting that the technology they were using was “classified weapons-grade,” something which should not have been used without the government's authorization.

“Can we have free and fair elections ever again?”

The veteran British reporter, Cadwalladr, who became the key to breaking the story of Cambridge Analytica secretly harvesting data taken from Facebook and using it to influence elections, continues to probe for more links between the Brexit campaign and the use of data manipulation techniques.

She eventually also revealed that Kaiser, when she was a part of the firm, also met with the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange during the Trump campaign and talked about the 2016 US elections.

The journalist pointed out a trend in the rise of authoritarian governments across the world, and how they are using hate and fear on Facebook to influence voters. The documentary conclusively raises the most resonant question in the film through Cadwalladr’s words that with such technology and psychological manipulation warfare in place: “Can we have free and fair elections ever again?”

The documentary premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, July 24.