The Great Hack director on data and power

A woman on a boat off a tropical island.

Karim Amer, one half of the directing duo behind the Emmy-nominated documentary, shares what being on the front line of the Cambridge Analytica story taught him about technology’s encroachment on democracy

By Jess Kelham-Hohler     Above image: Brittany Kaiser in The Great Hack (Netflix)    Thursday 27 August, 2020    Long read

It was a chance meeting in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution that led the now husband and wife film-making duo Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer to produce The Square, an Academy Award-winning documentary tracking the country’s battle to build a new society. Intrigued by the role they’d seen technology play in the uprising, the pair turned their attention to the relationship between social media and elections in the West – in doing so, they entered the world of Cambridge Analytica. 

The resulting Emmy-nominated documentary, The Great Hack, unpacks the murky world of big tech and the weaponisation of data to impact the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum. It follows the journeys of The Guardian investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr, Professor David Carroll – who filed a lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica to find out what data they had on him – and Brittany Kaiser, the firm’s former Business Development Director who debates becoming a whistle-blower. 

Here, Amer discusses what drew him and Noujaim to the story and why, when it comes to protecting our data, it’s time to stop sleeping at the wheel. 

How did your work on The Square impact your interest in the relationship between technology, social media and politics?

The Square really was a convergence moment that allowed us to see how power could be cultivated using technology. At that time, the symbol of power in Egypt changed from a centralised pyramid structure to a flattened one of a sea of people. That image forced us to question what power truly means. Within that, technology played a huge role. When Jehane was arrested, the way we found out was through Twitter – we posted a picture of her, someone IDed her and that was how we found out what prison she was in. 

‘When I came to America, I remember hearing a lot about the social media revolution and saw how Twitter, Facebook and Google were really stepping into this idea of technology being a catalyst for democracy. Then, when the pendulum swung the other way and we started to see technology and social media being used for things like ISIS recruitment, no one in Silicon Valley was taking responsibility. The message was, “we just created the tool, you can’t blame us”.

‘We were interested in how social media could be both this great equaliser and this great oppressor, which is what we saw first-hand in Egypt. What we didn’t realise was that this pendulum swing would happen in the West as quickly as it did, and that it would rip at the very root of Western democracy in both the US and the UK.’
A man writing on a white board.
David Carroll in The Great Hack (Netflix)

How did you decide which narratives and characters you wanted to focus on to tell this story?

‘We didn’t seek out to make a film about Cambridge Analytica – we were interested in understanding this new paradigm of how information warfare was shaping power structures. There are some challenges with stories like these. First, technology moves at such speed, so how do you tell that story without it quickly becoming dated? Second, how do you make a digestible, interesting story that’s about data, which is inherently invisible, and make it appealing to a mass audience?

‘Our solution to that was to make it about the characters who are engulfed in this world. This came to life through Carole’s reporting at The Guardian and David’s story. Then, of course, we have Brittany Kaiser, who is a critical figure in the film. Here is somebody who was inside this organisation that very few people understood, and whose exit we could follow in real time. Brittany had entered the political-technological intersection at the birth of social media’s politicisation when she worked for the Obama campaign, and then had gone all the way to the other side to signing Trump’s contract with Alexander Nix. By following her story, you could trace that same arc that we as a society went through.’ 

What does the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and your documentary – tell us about our personal relationship with our data security? 

‘In my opinion, we’ve been living under this assumption that there’s a fair deal between the tech gods and us – we give them our data, and they give us these tools that we don’t pay for. I think The Great Hack is hopefully one of many films and stories that will help remind us that there’s a cost that we’re unaware of in this deal. That cost may not be showing up on the balance sheet of Facebook or Google, but it’s showing up on ours as a society. The UK can slip into an authoritarian, illiberal regime before it knows it, and so can the US. The idea that these two countries are the custodians of democracy is a responsibility, not a birth right. The Great Hack, I hope, is one of the things that can remind us of that.’
A woman looking at newpaper print outs hanging in order on a wall.

As we head towards November, have you seen a similar wave of the weaponising of social media on behalf of elections? Has there been a shift in either direction?

‘I think it’s gotten worse. In the film, you see these moments with Carole talking over the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016 – now look at what happened this summer. I think you’re seeing the spread of division and racial hatred, which is weaponised once again by social media. Even COVID-19 has become a weaponised conversation space on Facebook, and they’ve refused to put a curb on political advertising. 

‘It’s quite dire, but at the same time what gives me hope is the ongoing work of people like David and Carol, who remind us that we can do something. I hope that work like this, and our film, reminds the critical mass to change the policies. If we continue to get the work from the dedicated few we need, who realise that our democracy is at stake, then hopefully through regulation or a new ethical framework from future generations of Silicon Valley engineers, we’ll get there. And I do believe we can get there.’

The Great Hack is available now on Netflix
Click here to watch a panel discussion between co-director Karim Amer, Farai Chideya and
The Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, hosted by Lyn and Norman Lear with Fisher Stevens
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