The Great Hack? More like the great who gives a f**k
We are all victims of The Great Hack.
This past weekend, I decided that Sunday evenings aren't anxious enough by themselves, and that now was the right time to watch Netflix's latest documentary: The Great Hack.
The two-hour feature, directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, attempts to untangle the web of Cambridge Analytica, digital privacy violations via Facebook, the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.
Out since last week, The Great Hack has not certainly stirred the public's senses in the same way that say Making A Murderer, The Staircase, The Ted Bundy Tapes, Fyre, et al. have. Days since its release, it's safe to say that more people were concerned with freeing Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey than they are with keeping their data from Facebook.
It tells the story of how playing it fast and loose with data has supposedly infected not just our personal lives, but jeopardised the entire democratic process too. The Great Hack should be a matter of concern for us all. So how come it's not?
Esteemed journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has reported diligently on the subject, features heavily in the documentary.
Cadwalladr's TED Talk, featured towards the end of the doc, sees her wonder whether it will ever be possible to have a free and fair election again. A valid concern, but by the metric that she's using, elections were never free nor fair.
An election free from propaganda, free from half-truths, mistruths and disinformation, free from false promises? No, such a thing will never happen again. It's worth noting, though, that no such thing has ever happened. Period.
From the earliest elections in the United States, propaganda was rife. The Reichstag Fire. The Red Scare. Fox News. Even in Ireland, the state broadcaster is legally obligated to provide airtime for those who are on the anti-scientific, anti-evidence, anti-sociological side of any given referendum issue.
The cat is out of the bag and it turns out that a large percentage of humanity is allergic to the cat. What we really need are anti-histamines. You're not going to stop people from lying, so the only solution can be to improve society's interest in the truth.
We have population primed to accept whatever "information" confirms the beliefs they already hold, or confirm tendencies or leanings that are lingering at the front of their minds. The battle is already lost.
People believed the Leave campaign when they promised on the side of a bus that the NHS would receive an additional £350million a week if the UK were to leave the EU. This from a movement led by people who want nothing more than to privatise the NHS.
Simply put, if you believed that bus, then you'll believe whatever you want. Objectivity is a distant memory to you, or an inconvenience. They don't need Facebook to get you. You'll pick up a copy of The Telegraph. Or the Sun. Listen to the words of the Prime Minister or the President. Nigel Farage has a programme on national radio. Digital propaganda is just one arm of the squid, and we haven't got a harpoon.
The problem is us. The persuadables. The brainwashables. Those amongst us who either will not, or cannot, identify the truth.
Too much is made of these data points, and their efficiency in predicting human behaviour. Go buy a watch on Amazon. If their system was so advanced, then why all of a sudden is Amazon trying to sell you more watches? Have you ever actually bought anything through a Facebook ad, or a promoted tweet? Spare me.
Whistleblower Chris Wylie explained to a parliamentary hearing on the subject that it doesn't matter how much you cheat, or whether the cheating had a significant impact on the outcome. Of course it matters. If we're going to devote immeasurable public attention to solving this problem then those specific details need to be investigated and isolated so they can inform how we proceed.
At the very end of the documentary, it's revealed that the Trump campaign ran over one million visual ads on Facebook compared to Hillary Clinton's 66,000.
I don't know what point they thought they were making by including that detail, but all it really confirms is the well-known wisdom that the Clinton campaign was almost shockingly lethargic. Trump's ads were lies - just like much of what he said out loud - but maybe if the Clinton campaign hadn't ignored the digital realm, then they would have a stronger leg to stand on here.
People don't care about handing over their data if it makes their lives more convenient than they ever could have imagined even 10 years ago. Invisible strands of data, silently mined and stored away somewhere you'll never have to think about them ever again.
We have proven that we are prepared to make this trade. In spite of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has continued to grow. Some people may have been deleted it, but they certainly won't delete WhatsApp and Instagram too, lest they be wiped off the social map.
We've made our choice on data - they can have it as long as it makes our lives easier. But it is incumbent upon us to be able to recognise when it is used to make our lives worse.
Alexander Nix, the man behind Cambridge Analytica, is dangerous. The most uncomfortable moment comes as he gleefully describes manipulating the democracy of Trinidad & Tobago with a voter-apathy movement targeted at Afro-Caribbean youths, in a successful attempt to keep them from voting.
To hear Nix's description of the plot played over footage of young Trinidadians taking part in it, you'd be mystified by how it could possibly have happened. How all these people could believe they were achieving their goals by not voting.
Any society that believes in that, believes in lies behind Trump, believes in lies behind Brexit, is there for the taking.
Unless we work out how to fix ourselves, we're going to be taken one way another.