Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim Interview: ‘The Great Hack’ directors
When asked if what Cambridge Analytica did, as documented in the Emmy-nominated “The Great Hack,” could be considered radicalization, filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim both thought it was a fair characterization. “This was not just a normal communications campaign. This is a weapons-level, military-grade operation conducted on British and American citizens without people’s consent or awareness,” says Amer in our recent webchat (watch the video above). He elaborates that Facebook was complicit in these actions, not just for giving the platform for it to happen, but also for actively encouraging it. He adds, “What’s most upsetting, in some ways, is how shocked we were to all this because we didn’t realize how much of ourselves we gave up.”
“The Great Hack,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, explores the British-based data firm, Cambridge Analytica. The firm gathered data on tens of millions of Facebook users, determined which had data points that indicated they could be persuadable voters and targeted them with content, often filled with misinformation, that would ultimately lead them to vote for Republican causes. The firm was first used in the U.S. with Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and eventually with Donald Trump’s when he became the Republican nominee. The group also conducted a similar operation during the 2016 E.U. referendum in the U.K. in support of the Leave campaign.
The film is nominated for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special at this year’s Emmys and it’s Amer’s second Emmy nomination. He was first in the same category in 2014 for “The Square.” While Noujaim, a co-director, is not among the nominated producers, she did win two Emmys for “The Square” in Nonfiction Directing and Nonfiction Cinematography. Both Amer and Nourjaim also scored an Oscar nomination for “The Square” in the Documentary Feature category.
While the team was able to get interviews with people who had played pivotal roles at the data firm, the weren’t able to nail down an interview with its former CEO, Alexander Nix, but they came very close to it. They talked with Nix, arranged the day and showed up with cameras to do the interview. “[Karim] went in and met with him and he basically said that if [we] were using any of the undercover Channel 4 footage that he didn’t want to participate in the interview. Then he walked out,” explains Noujaim. Channel 4 captured Nix in an undercover video admitting to having over 5,000 data points on each American voter as well as possibly violating UK election laws in the lead up to the Brexit vote. “It was too bad because we do think it’s important to get all perspectives on this,” Noujaim continued.
The pair are also glad for the recognition the film is receiving at this year’s Emmys. “We’re deeply honored and very grateful to our peers because, for us, it means that people feel like this is an important issue,” says Noujaim. Amer echoes that sentiment and hopes that the recognition means that people will become more aware of this issue and seek ways to actually help remedy the issue. “A film can actually get out there and cause a shift in the way that some people view their relationship with these technologies.”