The Great Hack – democracy at risk of serious damage

If you value information privacy, online integrity and democratic processes, and you have access to Netflix, then I recommend you watch The Great Hack.

It is a documentary movie that shows how the acquisition of online data, in particular from Facebook, has been used to manipulate opinions and elections. The now bankrupt UK based company Cambridge Analytica is one of the main focuses, with close links to the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the Donald Trump nomination and election as US president. Russian influence in elections is also a part of the story.

 

From a review by Odie Henderson (robertebert.com):

“The Great Hack” concerns itself with the United States Presidential election of 2016 and, to a lesser extent, the Brexit vote and other international political campaigns. The common factor in all these events is a now-defunct firm called Cambridge Analytica, represented throughout the film by several former employees. At the height of its powers, the company held up to 5,000 data points about each of the people contained in its databases.

This information was used for a variety of purposes meant to manipulate a certain cross-section of people. The master manipulators didn’t go after people whose minds had been made up; they went after on-the-fence folks referred to as “the persuadables.” Using the collected data, Cambridge Analytica set out to create fear and/or apathy to achieve the results of the political parties that hired them. Carroll’s lawsuit is an attempt to retrieve the data collected on him.

And how did the thousands of points of data wind up in those databases? Well, you willingly gave it to them, dear readers. Remember those seemingly innocent Facebook quizzes that you took to determine what Disney villain you were, or whether you were an introvert or any other goofy question you couldn’t wait to have answered so you could share it with friends online? Those little diversions asked specific questions that were used to harvest data.

Based on this and other information gleaned from Facebook posts and the friends with whom you associated on that platform, the data analysis tools used artificial intelligence and evaluations to create a startlingly accurate profile of you. Carroll asks his class if they ever think their phone is listening in on them because the ads they see seem perfectly tailored for them. Everyone says yes. Carroll tells them that this manufactured profile is why.

This is sure to be a controversial documentary, not just because it sees Brexit and the GOP Presidential campaign involvement with Cambridge Analytica as a sinister, almost military-grade level of psychological warfare against an unsuspecting public, but because it also highlights how large groups of people can easily be led to vote against their own interests.

There’s a too-brief section focusing on the “Do So” campaign in Trinidad and Tobago, where social media was flooded with catchy graphics and slogans designed to foster apathy in folks who would vote for the side not allegedly in cahoots with Cambridge. The Do So campaign made it seem cool not to vote at all, so many young people did not. As with the American campaign, the bombardment of ads and demonizing and false news stories was relentless.

The movie named a number of countries in which similar Cambridge Analytica had experimented, and also showed a map of the spread around the world. New Zealand appears to have avoided being targeted – so far. But I think that it’s likely that similar targeted ‘psychological warfare’ is likely to be tried here, if it hasn’t been already.

Breitbart News is also connected in The Great Hack.  Here in New Zealand the now far right Whale Oil website has championed Breitbart and modeled themselves on them, including the use of ‘fake news’ targeting political and ethnic/religious groups. ‘Whaleoil staff’ put up such a post yesterday.

Some of those who like the result of the Brexit referendum and the last US presidential election may see no problem here, but unless solutions are found then democracy around the world may well be heading for destruction.

Indeed, that is the aim of some of those who are trying to manipulate minds online, and swing elections – they believe that a breakdown of the current political systems is necessary to impose their own power structures on countries.

One thing in our  favour here may be that New Zealand has been relatively insignificant in the  the whole scheme of world politics and power.

But – if the international populism of Jacinda Ardern is seen as a threat to those using online data and online forums to brainwash people who are susceptible to being influenced then I don’t think we can rule out significant foreign interference in a future election here.

Fortunately the firearms reforms here have had near unanimous support in Parliament, with no time for major interference from abroad, although the US NRA has been linked to some attempts to swing opinion here in support of unfettered access to weapons.

But upcoming referendums on cannabis law reform, and possibly in euthanasia could be at risk. The debates on these issues have already been subject to false claims and distortions by some groups intent on imposing their views on the wider population.

Democracy is at risk of serious damage, due to the quest for profits by huge online media companies, and the harvesting and use of private data in a new and insidious form of propaganda by interest groups and countries,

Our democracy has not been perfect, but it has been better than most if not all alternatives. It is at real risk of being munted by international money makers and power seekers.

Leave a comment

15 Comments

  1. Dave K

     /  31st July 2019

    I get it, you were slighted but the Whaleoil fetish grows a little tiresome……like the great Steve Hanson said “flush the dunny” and move on.

    You’ll be the better man for it

    Reply
    • Kitty Catkin

       /  31st July 2019

      Pete was hardly ‘slighted’ by Whaleoil and the other pluguglies; he was persecuted, harassed and threatened.

      Reply
    • Funny, but thanks for bringing attention to a minor reference in a post about much more important issues.

      If you find it tiresome then maybe don’t rush here whinging. Have you watched The Big Hack? It shows how trying to diss the messenger is a common tactic.

      If Whale Oil keeps posting attacks based on false information, if they keep posting slanted and dirty attacks on people or groups of people, then I’ll point it out here when I feel like it.

      Reply
      • Kitty Catkin

         /  31st July 2019

        The anti-gay woman in the video used the cliched expression about Adam and Steve, so she is probably someone brought up in the West. The video might have but didn’t show Muslim support for the Rainbow people, including some marching in the parade and others openly gay and Muslim. Instead it and the commentary tried to make out that because one person displayed intolerance, everyone else in that religion is the same.

        Reply
  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  31st July 2019

    The movie vastly over-estimates the supposed effectiveness of the Facebook political campaigning CA claimed to be able to do. As well as being a thoroughly nasty human being Nix seems to have been a con man and most who hired CA seem to have fired them for wasting their money ineffectively. Also the so-called whistle-blower made off with their FB database and set up a competing firm which like CA is now defunct.

    Reply
    • Pink David

       /  31st July 2019

      “Nix seems to have been a con man”

      He did a great job suckering Carole Cadwalladr, he best moment was when she said “I’m not a ranting lunatic. I’m a journalist.”

      Reply
      • Carole Cadwalladr came across very well, and had a very good response to a snide attack on her – it’s near the end of the movie. Have you seen it?

        Reply
        • Pink David

           /  31st July 2019

          Hmmmm

          Reply
        • Pink David

           /  31st July 2019

          This, btw, is my favorite bit of Carol’s delusions;

          “On this occasion, the Russian ambassador introduced them to a Russian businessman with extensive business interests in Russian goldmines, according to documents seen by the Observer.

          It is understood they were presented with a business opportunity in which they were offered a chance to invest in a plan to buy six Russian gold firms and merge them into a single entity, potentially netting a profit of several billion dollars.”

          If you think that purchasing 6 Russian gold mines and ‘merging’ them is somehow going to get you billions in profits, you are very simply a mark.

          Reply
          • Duker

             /  31st July 2019

            Before I read the punch line, about raving lunatic, I had already thought that investigative journalist was the new rock star for geeks. Always wanting the fame.

            Reply
  3. Pink David

     /  31st July 2019

    “But – if the international populism of Jacinda Ardern is seen as a threat to those using online data and online forums to brainwash people who are susceptible to being influenced then I don’t think we can rule out significant foreign interference in a future election here”

    Who will protect the sheeple! They can only be allow access to information that has been vetted and curated by their betters to protect them from malign ‘influence’.

    “It is at real risk of being munted by international money makers and power seekers.”

    This is really the kind of silliness I’d expect from a 9/11 conspiracy forum.

    Reply
  4. PartisanZ

     /  2nd August 2019

    ” … in danger of being damaged …” Oh I laughed and laughed … 🤣😆😂

    Its been deficient all along. A semi-religious (hence irrational) horse-drawn feudal-industrial system …

    Nowadays its managed by corporate-political-and-military elites. Managed democracy or ‘Inverted Totalitarianism’ (Sheldon Wolin)

    “You can’t have democracy within an economic dictatorship” – Dr Martin Luther King

    Reply
    • Corky

       /  2nd August 2019

      You can’t have true democracy within the constraints of any political system. Full stop. Any form of governance is based upon usurping the rights of those under such governance.

      Reply
      • PartisanZ

         /  2nd August 2019

        Never heard of “consent of the governed”?

        The political system could be quite different, is all. We could, for instance, allow corporate-political elites to appoint a certain number of representatives – rather than complaining about them all the time like I do – and that’s where their influence ends: Balanced by union, professional, trades, beneficiary and NGO representatives maybe?

        De-power the Party system … an expression of the herd instinct. A majority of representatives must be independent?

        Everyone could have three votes: Chosen occupation, chosen affiliation (which is where ethnic parties might come in, but certainly not exclusively?) and electorate independent?

        Who knows? All I know is we’ve barely even thought about it, much less tossed around ideas.

        Reply

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