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.