People You May Know review – data mining meets Christian fundamentalism
If you like being shocked, creeped out and righteously infuriated by documentaries such as The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma that explain how our data is being mined by nefarious forces, then you’ll love People You May Know. Directed by Katharina Gellein Viken and Charles Kriel – who also appear on screen, and are together as a couple and bring their infant daughter along with them on their travels – this investigative work is as much a travelogue as an exposé. It starts in London in 2018 with US-born Kriel serving as an adviser to the DCMS committee report on disinformation and “fake news”, as it attempted to turn over the slimy rocks to gather whether Cambridge Analytica had sinister influence on voters supporting Brexit and the 2016 US election.
From there Kriel, Gellein Viken and various researchers follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to the US where they uncover links between several disingenuously titled rightwing organisations using Facebook and other digital resources to target/influence people who attend fundamentalist Christian churches, those with substance abuse problems, folks inclined to vote Republican, and the like.
Eventually, the film-makers work their way to a conference for the big kahuna, the Council for National Policy, the little-known umbrella organisation that networks so many of the others together; the CNP is an outfit that can count Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and many other minions of evil among their membership. Kriel manages to film them surreptitiously by wearing a crucifix with a tiny camera hidden inside, which is genius.
The dot-connecting of how it all works, persuasively explicated through the use of nifty animated graphics and material gathered under the terms of fair use, is very persuasive. At the same time, the protagonists and their merry band of determined historians and hackers are a personable, relatable lot, especially when they demonstrate moments of compassion and understanding as to how seductive all this rightwing or religious rhetoric can be. Gellein Viken, for instance, is awed by an app one church has constructed that gets to parents, especially mothers, by offering a countdown of exactly how many more days they have to shape their child’s values before they come of age.
Empathy like that will be needed to beat back the forces of dark money and delusion in the near future, starting with the US election.