SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Breakingviews) - Big data is the latest bogeyman of Western politics. A new documentary, “The Great Hack”, shows how the consultancy Cambridge Analytica targeted undecided voters in the Brexit referendum and 2016 U.S. election, partly by using Facebook. It’s a chilling tale but ignores the deeper economic and other forces that helped determine the outcome of those polls.
The connections between Mark Zuckerberg’s social network and the now-defunct British political consulting firm have already received a lot of scrutiny. They have been the subject of hearings in the U.S. Congress and the British parliament, as well as regulatory probes on both sides of the Atlantic. Facebook’s mis-sharing of data from 87 million users with the company part-owned by conservative billionaire Robert Mercer may end with the social network paying a $5 billion fine. Silicon Valley’s creepy data practices have also received a lot of attention.
“The Great Hack” still manages to break new ground, though. It is largely told through the eyes of former Barack Obama campaign staffer Brittany Kaiser. She deployed digital skills honed as part of the former president’s Facebook team in 2008 at Cambridge Analytica, where she aided the pro-Brexit referendum campaign and Donald Trump’s team in 2016. This put her in the middle of two of the biggest political upsets in recent history.
Her Democratic past makes Kaiser an unlikely campaigner for conservative causes. At times, she seems nonchalant about Cambridge Analytica’s tactics. She sounds like a professor when describing how the firm focused on setting up voter profiles because “personality drives behavior”. To do this, the company relied on online surveys that asked Facebook users to agree or disagree with statements like “I panic easily”.
Combined with other information gleaned from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica claimed it had 5,000 data points on nearly every voter in America. It then focused on the so-called “persuadables” – people who hadn’t yet made up their minds about a candidate – and bombarded them with tailored messages to try to influence their decision.
Yet it’s hard to judge how effective these sinister tactics were. In a swing state like Michigan, Trump won because turnout by rural, white voters increased compared with the 2012 election while fewer urban residents, including African-Americans, showed up to vote. Those constituents tend to have defined political leanings, but one group was more excited about the ballot than the other. In the end, the presidential election was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes.
The result of the Brexit referendum showed a similar rural-urban divide. A majority of older voters supported leaving the European Union, while younger residents were more likely to vote to stay. A 2017 Oxford University study found that people with lower education and income levels, including those hit by manufacturing losses, backed Brexit.
Yet “The Great Hack” ignores the broader economic trends that influenced the U.S. and UK votes. The only time it acknowledges them is when Kaiser notes that her father lost his job after the 2008 financial crisis, and her family lost their home. These financial challenges motivated her to seek a well-paid job. Her more recent notoriety is not without benefits either. The documentary shows her escaping to Thailand before a UK parliamentary hearing and talking to the camera while hanging out in an infinity pool. She has a deal with HarperCollins to write a book.
Kaiser does have some epiphanies in the end, though. She expresses outrage as she watches former Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix and Zuckerberg testify before politicians. She questions what she’s been doing with her life.
The film is directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, who previously explored how social media could be used to promote freedom in “The Square,” their depiction of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. After a recent screening in San Francisco, the pair said they wanted to show how the pendulum had swung and technology is now being used for bad purposes. An alternative explanation is that their early optimism and more recent gloom are both exaggerated.
The film’s last questions are: “Can I be manipulated?” and “Can you?”. But it does not ask what responsibility policymakers and the public bear. People continue to voluntarily post information on social media platforms. Despite the scandals, Facebook’s user growth in the first quarter of 2019 was 8% higher than a year earlier. American lawmakers have yet to pass any new laws to rein it in. Economic inequality remains a big problem.
More broadly, the notion that the electoral upsets of 2016 would not have happened without Facebook is unhelpful, as it diminishes the responsibility of politicians and voters. New technology has doubtless had a big social impact. But presenting it as a sole threat to democracy is an oversimplification of the West’s current political predicament.
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