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Helms: Netflix documentary affirms distrust in manipulative political system

I was blown away by the Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack” directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim. Listening to the courageous voices of whistleblowers Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie against their former employer Cambridge Analytica is tantalizing, mesmerizing and kept me seated on razor’s edge. My body held feelings of unrest long after the documentary was over.

The aftertaste has lingered for such a period creating my own questions and affirming my distrust of a political system based on business opportunism that operates by manipulating civil, human and identity rights. The subject seems too big to tackle.

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I came away feeling like I had been in the presence of a 21st century prophet proclaiming a global warning. Many of the messages and language used in the documentary left the hairs on the back of my neck standing on edge; a kind of eerie forecast of the future unknown. Hungry onlookers’ appetites are fed by individualized ads on cell phones and computers from below as Cambridge Analytica precariously tiptoes across a high wire carrying our precious “data babies” above our heads seemingly out of our eyesight.

For example, when whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaks of founder and one-time vice president of Cambridge Analytica Steve Bannon, he describes Bannon’s doctrine this way: “If you want to fundamentally change society you first have to break it. It is only when you break it, when you can remold it into your vision of a new society.” What is this “it” Bannon is referring to? Is he referring to breaking a free and fair democracy?

But there are deeper questions presented that made me feel like an innocent swimmer in an ocean that, without my realization, would slowly hold me in its grasp and pull me out to sea. This is how I felt hearing Brittany Kaiser speak about how Cambridge Analytica used the personal data of thousands of Americans without their permission.

Kaiser explains, we were “targeting whose minds we thought we could change ... we call them the persuadables ... if you target enough persuadable people in the right precinct then those states would turn red instead of blue. ...” She goes on to speak of using propaganda advertising, “until they saw the world the way we wanted them to.” In response to these daunting words, I personally have always said it is not the devil in the room with the horns you have to worry about. It is the one that comes to us looking like an angel. But there is something about a fallen angel that just doesn’t smell right. The odor left by Cambridge Analytica left me as a citizen, speechless and yet asking even more questions after watching the story unfold. In reality, what are my civil rights? What are my human rights? What are my identity rights?

Within the context of technology and data, we now are the commodity. This was a repeated theme in the documentary. How is it through my bank there are at least some protections in place now for identity theft for the individual? But with social media and data companies like Cambridge Analytica, our personal data is being used to fuel “a full service propaganda machine” as stated by Christopher Wylie who once worked for the company.

But can one person make a difference? David Carroll, highlighted in The Great Hack, challenged the system to get his data back. Although he was a David against a Goliath, he was able to get Cambridge Analytica to admit guilt of criminality using his data, but he never got his data back. Then we see a second giant emerge. In the context of the United States democratic process, David Carroll says, “seven thousand voters in three states decided the election.” Might he also think it was the stone that stopped a free and fair democracy giant in its tracks?

In an age when our liberation is limited by how our free data is being used, we need to wake up to the prophetic message of The Great Hack. After watching, I could not argue the power of business to use our data to manipulate people, personalities, behaviors, votes, authoritarianism, fear, hate and governments; even on a global scale. When it comes to social media and individualized propaganda: Be careful of the false power created by spotting the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is in front of you. Beware of the real wolf behind you.

Kat Helms writes from Taneytown.

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