The Great Hack

This film is out on Netflix now, and it’s a not a comforting experience.  It’s a detailed look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it’s sweeping up documentary film awards for the directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim.  It gives a detailed account of how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data illegally to help in a whole raft of elections and referenda all around the world.

The Great Hack is a really interesting film, and lays out in detail how the illegal use of data influenced elections.  As whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament, “I think it is completely reasonable to say there could have been a different outcome of the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating.”  The Great Hack exposes this cheating through Cambridge Analytica, but ultimately there is no happy ending – the people who engaged and briefed and steered Cambridge Analytica are now, literally, running the country. 

But The Great Hack isn’t the only place to find this stuff out.   The journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote this piece on 2 July 2016, and delivered a Ted talk in April 2019 which you can find here.  Both of these are pretty damning, and we really ought to be doing more about this.  Facebook won’t disclose who bought advertising or even what the adverts were like, and that doesn’t seem to me the actions of someone who knows they’re on the moral high ground.  

It’s surely not a surprise to anyone that Social Media is used to influence people’s opinions – otherwise the Advertising industry wouldn’t be moving all their efforts into Social Media platforms.  Facebook advertising revenue in 2018 was US$55 billion, up from US$40 billion in 2017. If you have any doubt about the power of advertising, then you should only look at that. The corporations who are investing in that level of advertising aren’t doing it because it has no effect.  But it isn’t just advertising in the traditional sense, it’s the constant repetition of images or messages. When my eldest daughter was very small, she watched Sesame Street. We had no problem with that, but one evening we arrived home late and she woke up as I was about to watch something on Channel 4.  When she saw the Channel 4 logo, she thought Sesame Street was coming. So it is with messages from Vote Leave about immigration – you see something often enough, you start to believe it.  

The challenge is that most people who voted in the European Referendum have clear beliefs (on both sides) and voted based on those beliefs.  The “swing” voters that were influenced by the Vote Leave Facebook campaigns aren’t going to be pleased when the people they think of as the Metropolitan Liberal Elite start telling them they were victims of a massive scam.

The Great Hack is an excellent, well made and thoughtful film, and should be required watching for everyone who thinks they’re not being tricked.  It doesn’t answer the question about how the UK rebuilds our reputation and economy, but it does show quite clearly how people who basically stole an election have managed it.  It’s out now on Netflix.

#thegreathack #carolecadwalladr #brexit #cambridgeanalytica

AI: more than human – I mean, you’d hope so…

This week became a bit muddled when almost every timed activity (meetings, telephone conferences, telephone calls) got rearranged or cancelled. I don’t mind really, (I like the feeling of time recovered to be wasted on something else) but one thing that happened was a visit to the @BarbicanCentre to look at the AI exhibition, AI: more than human. I want to use AI to change lighting at Unpleasantville Live, so it was good to see how other people are using this technology. It’s an interesting and entertaining exhibition, linking AI to humanity’s long history of trying to create intelligent life (something we’re a bit short of!). If you remember early Aibos and Rhoombas then it’ll make you slightly nostalgic, but there’s also exhibits about using AI to maximise plant growth to comfort you, and AI driven weapons to disturb you.

There’s a room there built by @teamLab_net Tokyo which basically uses the technology to do everything I want to do with Unpleasantville Live, although their video, graphics and music are all very beautiful and calming, rather than what I have in mind. The movements of the audience change the projections on the walls, but that doesn’t do it any justice, as it’s elegant and fascinating, and I highly recommend it. Visit if you can!