Oceans of information are floating in the digital hemisphere. If you know what you're looking for and how to find it, nothing is out of reach. This is a disturbing reality for many law-abiding citizens who cherish their privacy, but it can also be an essential tool for professional pursuits like journalism. The VPRO documentary series puts this potential to the test in Big Data: The Shell Investigation, an absorbing look into the oil giant's two billion dollar debt to the Iranian government.
In 2002, as Iran was gearing up its nuclear arsenal, the international community began retaliating through increasingly crippling sanctions. American and European business interests were discouraged from the region, and most fled to protect their reputations and their bottom line. These events occurred at an inopportune time for the British and Dutch multinational corporation known as Shell. The company was in the midst of mounting a multi-billion dollar venture into Iran in an effort to exploit the country's vast natural gas reserves. Questions have persisted regarding the company's dealings with Iran during this time, and the nature of their sizeable debt to the country. There is also an indication that the Dutch government might have encouraged Shell's continued presence in Iran in spite of their publicized support of international sanctions.
The filmmakers follow a team of journalists as they work diligently to uncover the answers to these questions. Finding nothing but resistance from Shell representatives, the investigators resort to big data in search of truth. They sort through more than 250,000 Wikileak documents, and consult a variety of online sources such as Wikipedia and LinkedIn. Through these extremely common and easily accessible channels, they are able to piece together a compelling and factual narrative. These results might not have been possible through antiquated investigative practices alone. However, big data allows these results to flourish with a few keystrokes in a search engine.
Big Data: The Shell Investigation chronicles the unfurling of its central mystery piece by piece. It's fascinating to watch it all come together. The film also delivers a series of more significant revelations involving the state of journalism in our digital age, and how it has transformed the way we create, share and access information.