Breaking the rules: HBO doccies to inform – and terrify – you

25 June 2020

Breaking the rules: HBO doccies to inform – and terrify – you

Showmax has just released three HBO documentaries, each with a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, that together paint a deeply disturbing portrait of America today.

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections reveals the extent of vulnerabilities in America’s voting systems and the risks they pose to democracy. 

From the team behind HBO’s 2006 Emmy-nominated documentary Hacking Democracy, Kill Chain follows Finnish hacker and cybersecurity expert Harri Hursti as he travels across the US to show how American election systems remain dangerously unprotected. 

Hursti has a long history of drawing attention to the vulnerabilities of election technology. In 2005, he hacked into a widely used voting machine in Florida. Despite widespread public outrage, the same machine is slated for use in many states in the 2020 election. 

As the film uncovers, despite official claims to the contrary, individuals and foreign states can still employ a dizzying array of simple, low-cost techniques to gain access to voting systems at any stage – from voter registration databases to actual election results to malware that can be widely distributed and anonymously activated without detection at any point. 

News reports and government agencies have chronicled dozens of seemingly random, unrelated security breaches in the past, but Hursti asks us to consider them as part of a coordinated ‘kill chain’ – a military strategy that employs meticulous, long-game attacks. At the end of this kill chain: a breakdown in the public’s trust in elections, and with that collapse, a loss of faith in the democratic process itself. 

The documentary is packed with alarming claims. In Washington DC, cyber-security expert Andrei Barysevich describes how the Election Assistance Commission, a federal advisory group that maintains comprehensive real-time data on every state in the country, was hacked by a Russian-speaking actor named ‘Rasputin’ in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election. Despite claims by election-machine makers that they keep units under lock and key, Hursti finds a warehouse in Ohio full of AccuVote TSX machines, a model that will be used in the 2020 elections, being sold on eBay. 

At Nevada’s Def Con, the world’s largest hacking convention, attendees experiment with current voting machines and discover, among other revelations, that votes could have been altered remotely, even from a car driving past a polling place. In California, Hursti meets statistician Philip Stark, who created a method for ‘risk-limiting audits’, and found that a single machine at a polling place in a Democratic district in Georgia showed only Republican wins. Stark ran a simulation that found the likelihood of this disturbing anomaly to be one in a million. A hacker, based in India, reveals that he hacked into Alaska’s voting systems on the day of the 2016 Presidential Elections and could have changed any vote or deleted any candidate. 

As Time says, “This documentary will show you just how fragile our democracy really Is… If you don’t want to know how easy it is for a canny individual—or a malicious state actor—to hack into the electronic voting technology used in the US, don’t watch Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.”

Watch Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections first on Showmax in South Africa:

After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News

In After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, directed by Emmy nominee Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside The New York Times), the victims of disinformation campaigns humanise the danger of ‘fake news.’ 

For example, James Alefantis talks us through the impact of Reddit-fueled conjecture that his family pizza restaurant in Washington DC hosted a child pornography ring with links to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The claim not only led to his staff receiving regular death threats but also an armed gunman bursting into the restaurant looking for proof of the crimes. In 2019, the FBI designated conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” as a new domestic terrorism threat. 

The documentary also talks to Aaron Rich, brother of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was killed in an attempted robbery but whose murder was linked online to the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails to WikiLeaks – despite overwhelming proof that the Russians were behind the hacked server and leak, and a lack of any evidence that his murder was in any way connected.  After Truth says the assassination theory was fueled by operatives like Jack Burkman and Jerome Corsi – both interviewed in the documentary – and broadcast on Fox News and Sean Hannity’s prime time show. 

In a sequence that is both farcical and terrifying, After Truth follows Burkman and Jacob Wohl as they team up to stage a press conference to falsely accuse former FBI director Robert Mueller of sexual assault – seemingly timed to disrupt his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration. 

Of course, the documentary makes it clear that fake news predates the Trump Era. It explores the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy, where an eight-week military training exercise in Texas in 2015 was alleged to be a cover for President Obama to round up political dissidents and detain them in recently closed Walmarts in the area, which were supposedly linked by secret underground tunnels. This conspiracy theory gained so much momentum that the governor’s office assigned the state guard to monitor the exercise. 

And After Truth makes it clear that some activists on the left have also tested out fake news tactics, like during the 2017 senate race between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, where the documentary shows that an online campaign was put in place to imitate Russian tactics to influence voters. 

Decider calls After Truth “terrifying”, while The Hollywood Reporter hails it as “harrowing and relevant”, saying, “You may need a shower after watching After Truth. That, plus subscribing to a trusted newspaper and deleting our Facebook presence may be the most we can do.”

Watch After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News first on Showmax in South Africa.

The Scheme

The HBO Sports documentary The Scheme chronicles an unprecedented two-year undercover FBI investigation into college basketball corruption that came to a dramatic climax on 26 September 2017, when Adidas executives and assistant coaches at amateur major college programmes were arrested in a pay-for-play scheme. 

While no head coaches were charged, the federal government alleged that 25-year-old Christian Dawkins man was part of a criminal enterprise that had infiltrated college basketball and funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to steer recruits to prominent athletic programmes.

Now, in The Scheme, Dawkins faces the camera for the first time and explains in fascinating detail how he ended up in a hotel suite surrounded by FBI agents with a warrant for his arrest. 

Through revelation after revelation, viewers will learn how Dawkins was orchestrating massive cash payments to top high school prospects with the help of Adidas, and, unbeknownst to him, undercover FBI agents. Dawkins will disclose not only the facts of the scheme but the context of the FBI investigation. Ultimately, guilty verdicts on a range of fraud and bribery charges would leave Dawkins with approximately 18 months of prison time. 

“This story is surprising in every way imaginable and goes far beyond the limits of a college recruiting scandal,” says director Pat Kondelis, whose 2017 account of the Baylor University basketball scandal, Disgraced, won the Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary. 

Or as CNN put it, “The Scheme makes college basketball look bad, and the FBI look worse… It’s a riveting, meticulously detailed guide to a system that seemingly invites rule-breaking at every turn.”

Watch The Scheme first on Showmax in South Africa.

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