WASHINGTON - Kenya’s annulled 2017 presidential election was among Africa's most expensive. President Uhuru Kenyatta and main challenger Raila Odinga spent tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns, including sizeable investments in global PR firms that mined data and crafted targeted advertisements.
As experts sort through the historic election’s aftermath, the involvement of data analysis companies has come to the forefront, raising questions about privacy, voter manipulation and the role of foreign firms in local elections.
Data mining and PR companies conduct surveys to gauge public sentiment and sift through reams of data across social media. They stitch that information together to build detailed profiles and deliver targeted, customized messages aimed at changing behaviors.
Some see it as smart campaigning. But others point to the ethical concerns of manipulating voters with false information.
“You have a lot of these organizations, these PR firms, lobby firms, out there, and they’re essentially just mercenary outfits that do work for the highest bidder, regardless of their bloodstained track record,” Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, an organization that advocates for good governance on the continent, told VOA.
“It’s all legal. It’s a business, and these businesses exist to make a profit ... It’s the ethical and moral side where I tend to question.”
Democratic practices falling behind
According to media reports, Kenyatta’s campaign paid $6 million to Cambridge Analytica, the analytics and PR firm tied to the Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and, as recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, WikiLeaks.
Owned in part by the influential Mercer family, U.S.-based billionaires and political donors, Cambridge Analytica compiles demographic information to build vast databases of voter profiles. It then delivers personalized advertisements to key voters in an attempt to sway them.
Kenyatta wasn’t the only candidate to enlist the services of a high-tech PR firm. According to new reporting by The Star, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, Odinga’s campaign employed Aristotle International, a U.S.-based company focused on campaign data mining.
The exact impact of these firms on the outcome of the August election is impossible to gauge, but their prominence in Kenya points to the role high-tech campaigning will play in future elections across the continent.
That’s raising questions about whether these companies undermine the democratic process by giving their clients an unfair advantage and manipulating the public.
“We have reached a point where our technological advances now exceed the ability of democratic practices to catch up,” said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
“That has created a window where people can exploit platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to amplify certain messages that play on ethnic stereotypes for purposes of creating fear and winning elections,” Juma told VOA.
This isn’t Cambridge Analytica’s first foray into Kenyan politics. Although it won’t acknowledge working on the recent campaign, the company boasts of its role in the 2013 elections, when Kenyatta contracted with the firm.
According to its website, Cambridge Analytica “designed and implemented the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa” by sampling and interviewing 47,000 respondents to provide key political issues and identify voting behaviors, from which it drafted an “effective campaign strategy based on the electorate’s real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).”
Cambridge Analytica and other data-driven PR firms have worked throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. The African market, with a projected population of 2.5 billion people in 2050, represents an enticing new frontier, with Kenya emerging as an especially appealing place to do business.
A unique mix of high mobile phone penetration, fast mobile internet, pervasive social media use and a young electorate — people under 35 comprise more than half of Kenya’s 19 million registered voters — makes the country ripe with opportunities for data mining and digital PR companies to invest in, or exploit.
For Smith, the lack of transparency inherent in how companies like Cambridge Analytica operate undermines the democratic process.
“What they do is essentially help propagate false news stories,” Smith said. “Me and my organization, Vanguard Africa ... were portrayed as somehow financing and supporting the Kenyan opposition, which was fundamentally not true,” he said.
“That didn’t make those stories go away, of course. The truth becomes the victim in all of this.”