The Great Hack: Who pays the

By Steve Hide August 6, 2019
Netflix’s The Great Hack uncovers some unsavoury aspects of social media data mining, and suggests links to Colombia.

The Netflix documentary The Great Hack reopens the debate on social media interference in Colombian elections. 

Bogotá’s mayoral elections are looming and with them the country’s second-hottest political ticket: he who runs the capital (next year it might be a ‘she’) is widely regarded as playing second fiddle only to El Presidente. So, the stakes are high.

But will this year’s electioneering be a fair fight? Or are politicians paying off on-line media giants to cloud our minds with targeted bumph and fake news?  Here’s an overview of what we know so far….

Q: Why should we be worried?

According to media analysts, the personal data mining industry is now worth more than big oil. Our on-line profiles, likes and comments can sucked up by dodgy apps then crunched by computers and used to tag us for propaganda dished up by tech companies paid off by powerful politicians. That targeted propaganda then pops up on our Facebook page, Whats App, Google, Instagram etc. In 2019 this is how elections are fought. A Netflix documentary laid it bare last month in The Great Hack, a documentary on the rise and fall of discredited big-data hacktivists and election influencers Cambridge Analytica.

Q: That was Cambridge. We’re in Colombia. Where’s the beef?

The Netflix docu flashed a mugshot of Bogotá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa. Seems the UK-based Cambridge Analytica had spread its tentacles into Latin America and was reporting on its own website that its parent company SCL Group had ‘reputation-managed’ the current mayor back in 2011 when he was preparing for elections. According to Colombian investigative site Cuestion Publica. Peñalosa was declared a ‘success story’ by Cambridge Analytica – he did win in 2015, after all.

Bogotá's Mayor Peñalosa was named as PR 'success story' discredited big data company Cambridge Analytica?
Bogotá’s Mayor Peñalosa was named as PR ‘success story’ by discredited big data company Cambridge Analytica as shown in The Great Hack. He denies any support from the discredited firm.

Q: OK, so Peñalosa used a PR company. Doesn’t everyone?

Well, yes. But other campaigns Cambridge Analytica ran went a few steps further: it had illegal access to data from 50 million Facebook users skimmed from on-line surveys and used to develop complex algorithms and clever ads to target swing votes in various countries and change history. Then they bragged about it to undercover journalists in the UK, along with their more traditional tricks to upset elections such as ‘honey-trapping’ candidates with Ukrainian sex workers and putting the pics online. Cambridge Analytica was forced to close. That was in 2018. Since then, for its part in the scandal, Facebook was slapped with a USD$5-billion fine. The question is: did it affect Colombia?

Related: Bogotá’s mayoral elections, can you vote?

In 2018, UK’s Channel 4 news secretly recorded Cambridge Analytica bosses as shown in The Great Hack.

Q: Well, did it?

No-one knows for sure. There was no clear link between Peñalosa and Cambridge Analytica, apart from the company’s own blurb. The garrulous mayor has always claimed to be his own PR guru. Though some investigators claim to have found a smoking gun in the form of

Q: Sounds like an all-night rib restaurant. Do they do Rappis?

No, silly, it’s an innovative app invented in Mexico that allows advertisers to access your Android phone screen saver. Each time you click on an ad you gain ‘ points’ in your ‘ bank’ (geddit?) which can be swapped for airtime with your service provider. Everyone wins. Except it’s linked to your Facebook page and has ‘spot surveys’ – the same type linked to data mining. That suggests that whichever election candidate pays might win.

The app has been downloaded 1 million times in Mexico and Colombia. The Great Hack
The app has been downloaded 1 million times in Mexico and Colombia.

Q: Caramba! Have we been compromised!

Unlikely. In 2018 there was worldwide indignation at Cambridge Analytica (which did help elect Trump in the US, after all) and its Facebook collaborator, and a global panic that democratic processes were under threat from daft on-line quizzes and funny cat videos. And enough concern for Colombia’s Superintendencia de Industria y Comercio – a state body that regulates businesses here – to ban the ap in Colombia as a ‘precautionary measure’. But’s parent company have always denied any political motives and scotched rumours of data mining links with Cambridge Analytica.

Q: So the ban was all huff and puff?

Maybe not. We now know from The Great Hack that nearby elections were skewed by chilling on-line ‘popular campaigns’ traced back to political chicanery. For example, in Trinidad a supposedly grass roots movement for voter abstention was created by a Cambridge Analytica subsidiary to benefit one party. In the murky world of data mining there are hidden connections and international influencers often disguise themselves as local groups. So it’s hard to prove who did what and how it influenced an election outcome. But the Colombian authorities were wise to wake up to potential risks.  And banning might stop social media companies from trying it in future.

Q: Does this mean going back to the old ways of robbing elections?

Hopefully not. Bogotá’s polls are generally seen as a fair fight with less chance in the big city to buy or threaten voters. And all candidates are sure to campaign on an anti-corruption platform. And we hope will declare any links to data miners and on-line influencers. Otherwise, as they say, piggies might fly.