Long before its controversial roles in the 2016 Brexit vote and U.S. presidential election, Cambridge Analytica influenced elections in Africa.
The data mining company, under fire for its alleged use of 50 million Facebook accounts to shape campaign messages for then-candidate Donald Trump, also played a role in elections in Kenya and Nigeria, according to new reports.
The company’s first involvement in Africa dates to the general election in South Africa in 1994. That election marked the end of the apartheid era and the ascent of Nelson Mandela to the presidency.
Widespread violence and deep-seated societal fractures had put the elections in jeopardy, Martin Plaut, a journalist and senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, told VOA.
“The 1994 election in South Africa was on an absolute knife’s edge. There was no reason to believe that it would go ahead without severe loss of life,” Plaut said.
The Inkatha Freedom Party, which represented the Zulu population — South Africa’s largest ethnic group — had not reconciled with the African National Congress (ANC). Amid divisions that were stoked, in part, by the old apartheid regime, hundreds died ahead of the election, Plaut said.
A political party — unnamed, but most likely the ANC — hired Cambridge Analytica to mitigate election violence, according to the company’s website. Their exact role in the election hasn’t been independently verified, but the violence subsided during and after the historic vote for Mandela and the ANC.
Involvement in Kenya, Nigeria
More recently, Cambridge Analytica worked with Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Party — not to build consensus, but rather to exploit divisions to re-elect President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The firm designed a campaign strategy based on interviews with nearly 50,000 potential voters gathered over three months. Their work with the Jubilee Party had been widely suspected but unconfirmed.
But in an undercover video broadcast this week on Britain’s Channel 4 News, Cambridge Analytica executive Mark Turnbull boasted that the company and its parent, SCL Group, ran the Kenyatta campaign.
“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done huge amounts of research, analysis, messaging. Then we’d write all the speeches and stage the whole thing. So, just about every element of his campaign,” Turnbull said.
Those elements included social media videos that played to the fears of the electorate, warning that a victory by opposition leader Raila Odinga would lead to disease, famine and terrorism.
Cambridge Analytica denied any involvement with the videos or negative campaigning in Kenya.
VOA reached out to both Cambridge Analytica in Washington and the SCL Group, but they did not respond to requests.
Similar allegations of malfeasance have emerged in Nigeria. The Guardian reported Wednesday that Israeli hackers provided Cambridge Analytica with President Muhammadu Buhari’s personal emails.
Buhari was running against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, and a Nigerian billionaire paid Cambridge Analytica $2.8 million to dig up damaging information about Buhari as part of an attack campaign, The Guardian reported. The emails included information about Buhari’s health and medical records, a source told The Guardian.
Since assuming office, Buhari has taken extended medical leaves in London, because of an undisclosed illness.
Data analysis companies such as Cambridge Analytica provide information to governments and political parties, Plaut said, to influence “people in the middle” — those with moderate views who can be persuaded to join a side through appeals to emotion.
These companies analyze precisely whom to target and craft messages that play on hopes and fears, not facts, according to Plaut.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, provide an in-depth view into people’s likes and dislikes — from which psychological profiles can be built and exploited to change behavior through tailored messaging.
Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Without Borders, a group that advocates for online freedom and privacy, told VOA’s French to Africa service that her organization has been warning about the dangers of letting companies like Facebook collect the personal data of billions of people around the world.
“Since 2010, we’ve been saying that countries with low-to-nil data protection are testing ground for worst practices by companies and governments,” Owono tweeted.
The ANC, South Africa’s ruling political party since the end of apartheid, has used similar techniques through its own data mining, according to Plaut. Through billboards along the highways of Johannesburg and fake social media posts, they have invested millions of dollars in messages that advance their agenda, regardless of truth.
‘Open to manipulation’
African voters, Plaut said, “are as open to manipulation as any voter in the world.” They’re a sophisticated electorate, Plaut said, that knows politicians craft and distort messages to suit their needs. But knowledge doesn’t inoculate people against the effects of disinformation.
“Everybody is open to manipulation,” Plaut said.
In Kenya, political advertisements played to fears surrounding terrorist group Al-Shabab and disease outbreaks. Persuasive messages about safety and health influenced an unknown number of voters, but enough to make an impact, Plaut acknowledged.
The role of data mining in Africa hasn’t been confined to elections.
The SCL Group has extensive ties across Africa, with past projects spanning from Libya to Rwanda, and from South Sudan and Somalia all the way to Ghana, according to their website.
SCL says its mission is to be “the premier provider of data analytics and strategy for behavior change.” The kinds of behaviors they seek to influence shift, depending on their clients and partners — of whom there are many.
In Rwanda, SCL partnered with World Vision, a global Christian aid organization, to conduct research on community attitudes about nutrition and sanitation. In South Sudan, SCL worked with the United Nations Development Group to conduct a survey on the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program.
SCL partnered with the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, along with a major British construction company, to research the country's attitudes toward the health care system.
In Somalia, SCL researched the tenability of the nationwide Somtelcom telephone network. The group also interviewed nearly 3,000 Libyans to develop policy recommendations to help the government address instability countrywide.
VOA reached out to John Apea, who is listed on SCL’s website as its special adviser for SCL Ghana. Apea said he no longer works with SCL and would not provide additional information about the office’s operations in the country.
The growth of digital media across Africa will present new opportunities to engage in sophisticated campaigns to influence not just voters but also policymakers and governments.
The solution, according to Plaut, is international oversight.
“The African Union should be much more robust in insisting on its observers going to see elections and spending a good deal of time there, not just five minutes before the vote takes place,” Plaut said.
In-depth reports filed months in advance of elections will give the public the tools they need to combat propaganda with a transparent account of their governments’ efforts to ensure a free and fair process.
Plaut anticipates closer scrutiny of the democratic process will lead to pushback and complaints of interference. Nonetheless, the efforts are worth it, he said.
“The African Union, as the guardian of democracy in the continent, has a duty to go out there and really push for democracy throughout the continent,” Plaut said.