The Click Trap – Raindance Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Director: Peter Porta

To the list of things that ‘everybody knows’ Leonard Cohen might have adde : advertisers have your data, and they use it to target you. Peter Porta’s film The Click Trap builds on that sliver of knowledge, supplying details and explaining consequences that everybody may not know.

He begins with a series of soundbites from various contributors, outlining the content, which covers the proliferation of digital advertising and the reasons why it’s a problem – for instance its use by scammers and its inadvertent support of websites promoting hate or disinformation. The last in the series is Mark Zuckerberg, famously smirking in sync with the colleagues behind him at a US Senate hearing in 2018, as he explains how Facebook makes money: “Senator, we run ads.”

Everybody also knows it’s all about the money, but everybody expects the internet to be free. Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate quotes “n old saying…. If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Various speakers explain how the model works, with data on individuals being sold to the highest bidder by at the speed of light. I-phone users are more expensive than Android users, according to researcher Tim Hwang. We briefly sit in on journalist Craig Silverman’s college classes as he explains the basics of information gathering . He describes an “insane scenario.” We don’t know who has our data, and even the advertisers don’t know where their money is taking them.

In 2016 Nandini Jammi found out. Her ads were appearing on the far-right website Breitbart. She began Sleeping Giants , which became a worldwide movement to block ads from disinformation sites. Since then she and Claire Atkin have founded Check My Ads Institute, a non-profit which does what it says. In the off-line world there is a long history of advertisers being discriminating; in 2021 for example, several companies pulled ads from GB News because it didn’t reflect their values. It’s much harder to do that in the digital world, run by algorithms, which is fast, and opaque. Rewan Al-Haddad,Campaign Director at Eko- Sum of Us, determined to “stop Google monetising disinformation,” takes protest to the streets of New York. Both she and Ahmed highlight the risks to quality journalism.

Social media allows anyone to publish any content, however poorly crafted, misleading or untrue. Gesturing energetically, Ahmed illustrates the practice of “recommendation:” “feeding , feeding , feeding” subject matter to an individual to keep them interested. Negative hyperemotional states – like anger and fear – are more effective. If you were to search ‘small acts of kindness,’ you would keep seeing people doing good deeds, but it seems you wouldn’t linger online – perhaps positive emotions incite action faster – so you wouldn’t be looking at ads. (Google emphatically ignored Guillaume Chaslot’s suggestion that they mix up content to provide different points of view.) As in the real world, advertisers pay for space. That is how well-known names end up funding vicious hate and incitements to violence.

The Click Trap is explicit about the use of data. Byron Tau, another journalist, uses the example of an anti-abortion organisation buying information which they used to target women visiting a clinic, bombarding them with ads questioning their decision. It took two years before the data broker, which has a policy against ‘political’ use, put a stop to it. A study by Joanne Kim shows that anyone’s mental health details, including the medication they are taking, widely available for sale – and you might get some extras thrown in – “wealthy seniors” for example, or “active living Jews.”

Scamming is another serious and life-destroying hazard of digital advertising. We meet Inger Helen Fjeld, who was a victim, and Erik Van den Berg, a Dutch investigative journalist who had no difficulty infiltrating an organisation. The film makes us aware that deceit is everywhere. Katie A Paul, Director of the Tech Transparency Project spends her days studying militia sites; priestly Erik can pose as a scammer, and angelic-looking Ava Lee of Global Witness can compose crudely hateful ads (she never actually posts them “because working for a human rights NGO…”).

The Click Trap seems to have an audience in mind, and it’s not the typical Fox, or, indeed, GB News viewer. Most of the contributors are young; all are articulate and personable. It comes as no surprise, in the welcome bit of lightness at the end, that Ahmed admits to being haunted by ads for cashmere sweaters. There is footage of Elon Musk simplistically defining free speech and Donald Trump in black leather gloves apparently encouraging the crowd on January 6th. It’s taken for granted that viewers will be against militia groups and pro-choice. There seems to be no opposing point of view. Then we get to the credits and learn that ‘Google-Meta and X declined to comment.’

The Click Trap is screening at theRaindance Film Festivalwhich runs from 19 – 28 June in London cinemas.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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