Cambridge Analytica, the UK political consultancy that worked on President Donald Trump's campaign, has been a thorn in Facebook's side since revelations last year that it had harvested the data of up to 87 million users without their consent.
The scandal led to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's first testimony before Congress and sparked investigations in the UK, India and Brazil. Now the data privacy scandal that Facebook can't shake is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, that debuts on Wednesday.
The timing couldn't be more perfect. As soon as this week, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to fine Facebook $5 billion for its alleged privacy mishaps. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and gets its release as the 2020 presidential campaign kicks off. And, as if that weren't enough, Robert Mueller, the former special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 US election, some of which happened on Facebook, will testify on Wednesday.
The two-hour film is about more than the downfall of a data analytics firm or its role in a history-making election. The Great Hack poses a simple question: Are we being manipulated by social media even as we willingly give tech companies our personal information?
"It's not about Democrat or Republican," said Jehane Noujaim, who directed the film with Karim Amer, in an interview last week. "It's about the future of our democracy and the future of our free will."
The Great Hack follows the scandal through the eyes of various participants, including Brittany Kaiser, a former business development director for Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower. Kaiser was questioned by UK lawmakers and Mueller. Before joining Cambridge Analytica, she worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Throughout the film, Kaiser travels around the globe, making stops in Thailand, Britain and New York. The filmmakers ask Kaiser about the moral dilemmas she faced at Cambridge Analytica, illustrating her desire for redemption.
"The most important thing for us was that her story was happening," Amer said. "We don't like to sit down and have things recounted to us."
Noujaim and Amer also follow David Carroll, an associate professor at New York's Parsons School of Design, who engages in a quest to discover what data Cambridge Analytica gathered on him. The film features appearances from Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalism for the Guardian and Observer, who recounts how she uncovered the scandal, and Julian Wheatland, the former chief operating officer of Cambridge Analytica.
At one point during the film, Wheatland remarks that a data scandal like Cambridge Analytica was bound to happen. Technology is moving so fast and people don't really understand it, he said. "There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica," Wheatland says in the film. "It just sucks for me it was Cambridge Analytica."
You'll be disappointed if you're expecting the filmmakers, who also helmed an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2011 Egyptian revolution called The Square, to call for the deletion of Facebook. They've seen firsthand how social media, which was widely used to share information during the uprising, can be a force for change. Those events tempered their perspective.
In 2011, a lawyer posted a photo of Noujaim to Twitter after she was arrested by Egyptian police in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where she was documenting protests. The tweet helped Noujaim get legal representation that led to her release.
The filmmakers are even using Facebook to promote the film.
Still, Noujaim argues we can strike a balance by limiting the amount of personal information we share in return for those personal connections. Social media companies, she says, should see themselves as "public service companies" with ethical responsibilities.
"I feel like it is a false choice that we have to trade in all of our privacy for connection to our friends," Noujaim said.
The Great Hack will be available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday. The documentary will also be shown at select theaters.