Hot Docs

The Click Trap Review: It’s Just a Click Away

Hot Docs 2024

5 mins read

The Click Trap
(Spain/France 90 min.)
Dir. Peter Porta
Programme: Made in Spain


You know you’re being monitored online when an image of cool shoes you looked at briefly appears on your feed the next time you search for…anything. But the extent to which some of the planet’s largest companies mine data and then make multi-millions on ads goes way beyond the apparently harmless acts of giving retailers ways to urge you to make the purchase. The Click Trap does a deep dive into Google, Meta and other data harvesters’ strategies that promote disinformation and hate in their search for mega-millions.

That these platforms mine data for profit is not news. Neither is the idea that they basically traffic in viewers’ eyeballs. Through interviews with online activists and tech experts we learn how they do it and the ways they’ve been able to trick some of the most powerful corporations in the world to make the most egregious ad placements. Had Nandini Jammi’s Check My Ads organization not informed the likes of Amazon and Disney that their ads were appearing on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart site for example, they never would have known–because they buys ads and then leave the rest to Google and the like.

It used to be that a newspaper headline told you what a story was about. But now an online headline just wants your click to a story that does not deliver the promised information. As a consumer of information you may be disappointed, but the advertiser will be wholly satisfied. Disinformation is now on the rise and legitimate journalism is suffering. Clickbait is replacing thought.

Since hate, disinformation, and terrorism garner so many clicks, including from people who support neither but are just curious, Google and Facebook just keep feeding them and with every click the website and platform make money. (At a certain point, Google employees proposed posting counterarguments to misinformation, terrorism, and conspiracy theories, not as a means of making money but as an ethical stance. Google rejected the idea, and later fired some of its proponents.) Google’s strategies not only allow these sites to make money by amplifying lies and hate, but they also allow them to advertise military gear and guns. You start to understand how a growing number of Americans, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population, have come to believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and why horrified observers can make the claim that Google not only promoted the January 6 insurrection but also the materials insurrectionists used to storm the Capitol.

Bad actors, from scammers to toxic political organizations feed on data generated through platforms, In the case of scammers, they uncover potentially vulnerable targets and in the case of extreme right political organizations, their use is to  torment their adversaries. Near, a data collector operating out of India, specializes in geofencing, a strategy that tracks an individual’s geographic location and then sells the data to entities that want access to those specific members of a population. The anti-abortion group Veritas used Near data to target women who attended abortion clinics and this sinister harassment went unnoticed by everyone except the targets for over two years.

Happily, The Click Trap offers more than a litany of transgressions by greedy corporations, and even some hope. Hyper-articulate and dogged resisters such as Sleeping Giants’ Jammi, Imran Ahmad of the Center for Countering Online Hate, Check my Ads’ Clair Atkin and Stop Funding Hate’s Richard Wilson, all of whom figure prominently in the film, are having immense success in raising awareness and reducing the profitability of hate-mongering websites. Jammi and her team, for example, were able to reduce Breitbart’s ad base by a full 90 per cent.

If these activists continue to uncover nefarious advertising strategies and amplify their findings, billions of online users might stop passively clicking away, and legislators can start doing something so that our laws could begin to catch up and crack down. That sounds like a fantasy, but listen to these passionate anti-greed activists and you might become a believer.


The Click Trap screens May 1, 3 and 4 at Hot Docs.


Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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