'So the question is, if Facebook is a crime scene, how do we get justice?’Netflix

In The Great Hack, released last week on Netflix, co-director Karim Amer fails to answer his own question. This documentary, covering Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook data misuse and CEO Alexander Nix’s ‘full service propaganda machine’, successfully documents and humanises what happened with our data during the Brexit referendum, and in the 2016 US presidential elections.

But, if a murder mystery went through, in forensic detail, the make of the murder weapon, the angle of the blow, the bloody facts of the wounds, and then dusted off and moved on to the next case, wouldn’t you feel cheated? The Great Hack condemns and explains, stylishly and sometimes movingly. It tells us what happened, and that it was wrong, then doesn’t bother to meaningfully reflect on where we go from here. Despite good intentions, sharp animation and some smart direction, it ends up all crime scene, not enough justice.

Given The Great Hack’s two hour time frame, I can forgive it for looking primarily at two recent votes. The film’s anglocentrism gets frustrating, though, when other affected countries are reduced to footnotes or precursors to our own, much-recounted downfall. The Myanmar military’s use of Facebook to incite ethnic cleansing deserved more than two minutes’ worth of coverage.

The Great Hack focuses mercifully little on why the villains of the piece do what they do. Abuse of power comes as no surprise

A saving grace. The Great Hack focuses mercifully little on why the villains of the piece, the Alexander Nixes of this world, do what they do. Not every white male Eton-educated financier turned dubious ‘consultant’ ends up getting Donald Trump elected and stealing your data. Yet when they do, at this point you sense they’re not exactly going rogue, demographically speaking. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Instead, two key opposing figures emerge: Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian investigative journalist responsible for exposing the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and the woman she writes about but never meets.

The centre of the documentary’s own psychological study is former Cambridge Analytica employee, whistle blower, and data rights campaigner Brittany Kaiser.

Her tweets on data rights are superimposed onto swooping drone footage of tropical ocean and spotless sand. It could be the start of some high-budget nature documentary, or the feature film adaptation of a particularly enviable Instagram. A uniformed faceless woman brings out coconut cocktails on a white tray. Brittany Kaiser does laps in the pool, keeping her sunglasses on. Right now, in an unspecified part of Thailand, she is off the radar; she has the luxury of the unknown.

Discovering Kaiser before she went public, before her mother worried someone would go out and kill her, allows directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer to cover a situation in flux in real time, in the cinema verité style their previous work had honed, and which Rachel Lears used to document Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to fame in Netflix’s Bring Down the House.

If they won’t ask these questions, what - and who - is this documentary really for?

We are meant to be a little shocked by Kaiser’s transition from youthful Obama intern, posing with the celestial Michelle, to half-ironic NRA-member taking selfies with Kellyanne Conway and masterminding shady social media campaigns for the literal (read: not at all, ) Zodiac Killer, Senator Ted Cruz. In hushed tones, they ask her about this move, as if trying to hear that a single switch from blue to red started and cemented her corruption.

It turns out, of course, that Kaiser learned her data-collecting trade working for Obama’s disruptive 2008 presidential campaign. Her switch from working for centrist candidates to championing the far right is less about political seduction than the fact that neither the Obama nor Clinton campaigns were willing to pay her.

We are given Kaiser’s story of redemption, but with her compelling character arc comes little ultimate scrutiny. ‘Data rights are human rights’ is the film’s rallying cry, but what does this really mean when it comes to data justice?


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Kaiser’s campaign, #OwnYourData, believes that our data should be considered personal property, ‘like a house, or a car’. She has an empowering vision of us selling our data to the highest bidder, able to dictate ethical conditions, bargaining smoothly with multinational conglomerates.

This sounds far too much like a pharmaceutical giant celebrating a switch from experimenting on prisoners to gaining the ‘consent’ of paid citizens to take part in a dangerous chemical trial. That the film doesn’t delve into or question the goals of her activism shows up its makers’ true naivety. If it isn’t willing to explore these questions, no matter how slick or sympathetic the production may be, what - and who - is this documentary really for?