The global streaming giant Netflix recently released a documentary called The Great Hack. The film takes a hard look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, unearthing how millions of Americans’ personal data was compromised and how they were manipulated online during the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. We found the documentary fascinating, so naturally, we dusted off our microphones and recorded a conversation about it. 

This episode of the GoodTech vidcast, live every other Thursday at 6:00 pm CET,  features our very own Co-Founder and CEO Göran Wågström talking about The Great Hack and its eye-opening potential. 

Watch the recording on our YouTube channel or read on for a short recap of the discussion. 

The Great Hack in a nutshell

The Great Hack reveals a number of details about the Cambridge Analytica scandal that had been unknown to the public. It goes behind the scenes to show viewers how the events that led to the scandal unfolded, who the true whistleblowers were and how they saw it all go down. It also takes a look at Facebook’s role in the scandal and how CEO Mark Zuckerberg went about mitigating the damage to his company’s reputation. 

The documentary features key personalities such as The Guardian and The Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr who broke the story in 2017; US professor David Carroll who took Cambridge Analytica to court; and Cambridge Analytica’s former director of business development Brittany Kaiser who, after ex-employee turned whistleblower Christopher Wylie started the avalanche, collaborated with the authorities on taking down Cambridge Analytica. 

The data breach that resulted in the Cambridge Analytica scandal can be easily summed up. The political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from the Facebook profiles of millions of Americans without their consent to create personalized social media ad campaigns and sway them to vote for Donald Trump. They used a process called psychographic profiling – fuelled by data collected through an innocent-looking personality test – and focused on voters in swing states (referred to as “persuadables” in the documentary). 

What’s not easy to sum up is what went into this never-seen-before political campaign and the implications it may have had on the US presidential election – you’ll have to watch the film to find out more. If it were only about the US elections… The Great Hack associates Cambridge Analytica with hundreds of other political campaigns around the world, including the Brexit campaign, elections in India, Kenya, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. They are accused of having aided Russia in spreading fake news on social media, too. The film also reveals that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, the SCL Group provided psychological warfare services for military use. 

What We’ve Learned from The Great Hack

According to Göran Wågström, CEO and Co-Founder of Idka, The Great Hack does an excellent job of shining the light on the dangers of using data for manipulation. 

In the hands of the wrong people, data becomes a weapon that can be used to establish divide and fuel conflict. 

“They used psychographic profiling and behavioral science to analyze people’s psyche and influence them on an individual level with the help of targeted social media ads. This had never happened before,” he says. 

The problem with this kind of targeted manipulation on social media is that it’s virtually invisible to the public, Göran adds. Ads appear in your personal newsfeed, for only your eyes to see – unlike manipulative messages communicated through mass media, which are seen by millions of people. Since you’re the only one who sees these ads (unless you share them with someone else), awareness is extremely low – it’s almost impossible to tell that you’re being manipulated. 

“You’re approached with messages during an extended time period. The process involves a lot of small steps that you don’t understand,” he says. “The manipulation is going on behind the scenes. You don’t realize that you’re being manipulated and no one knows about it.”

Will The Great Hack change how we behave online?

Göran believes that the film has the power to open many people’s eyes.

“For most people, it’s still difficult to grasp how their likes can be used to manipulate them and influence their vote,” he says. 

The most important takeaway from the documentary is that it’s not just about a specific election – it’s about democracy in general. We need to realize that by using platforms that exploit their users’ personal data, we may be contributing to a global phenomenon that is bigger than any of us, or any of our local elections. 

“A like is a piece in a puzzle that can tear down democracy,” says Göran.

The Great Hack has been criticized for having a political agenda, but Göran disagrees.

“Independently of which party you vote for, if basic democracy is at stake, it’s about our rights, not politics,” he says. 

So what can we do to make ourselves less prone to manipulation?

“You’re going to have some digital footprint. But you can take actions to minimize it,” he says. 

“What you can do is use search engines that don’t track you and switch to browsers that block cookies and ads. Use a VPN to hide your IP address and encrypt communication. Switch off the GPS on your phone and turn off the Wi-Fi when you’re not using it. Quit Facebook and other social media platforms that collect your data and start using platforms that respect your privacy – Idka is one of them.”

Göran believes that psychographic profiling is so dangerous it should be banned – but it’s going to take a long time for the regulation to catch up with the reality we’re living in.

What do you think? Have you seen The Great Hack?

Tune into the GoodTech vidcast LIVE every other Thursday at 6:00 pm CET for more conversations about digital privacy!

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