A recent article in The Conversation by British academics Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis and Nic Cheeseman, downplays the meddling of Cambridge Analytica (CA) in key African elections, such as the latest presidential elections in Nigeria and Kenya.
In the latter case, the recent Channel 4 undercover investigation records Mark Turnbull, managing director of CA’s political division, bragging about the company’s successful involvement in President Kenyatta’s 2013 and 2017 election campaigns.
It is surprising that a team of researchers with vast expertise on African politics should dismiss such worrying evidence as business usual. At this stage, we certainly need to know more, and push for rigorous investigations into these matters.
The arguments put forward are weak: the authors claim that their research into the latest Kenyan election shows that there is no evidence of Facebook targeted ads. But Cambridge Analytica is not just about targeted ads, it’s about a total strategy of voters’ manipulation, from fake social media profiles and negative videos to highly sophisticated big data, from entrapment and blackmail to old school PR advice.
Mark Turnbull himself doesn’t talk about targeted ads in the Kenya case in the Channel 4 video, but a number of activities, including research and surveys, to understand voters’ perceptions. His explanation of CA general approach in the same recorded meeting is particularly troubling:
“The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information on board effectively, are hopes and fears, and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear, until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you.
And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns… It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.”
In a context like the Kenyan one, these are matters of life and death. According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, 37 people died in post-election violence last year, and many analysts pointed to ethnic divisions playing a role. Post-election violence in 2007–2008 claimed more than a thousand lives, and displaced several hundreds of thousands.
The authors also point out that the majority of Kenyans don’t use facebook, and hence any online operation by CA could not swing the wider electorate.
It’s well known that Facebook reaches far and wide and can certainly affect people who in turn influence their urban and rural communities. As the 2016 American presidential election shows, a focus on a small number of swing voters can be decisive, you don’t need to target the whole voting population to have a significant effect. While so much is made of the swing vote in three key states in Trump’s victory, the article implies that in Kenya these considerations don’t apply.
In a BBC radio interview, Nic Cheeseman liquidates CA as a company that exaggerates the value of their services “to get big contracts that are very lucrative with governments that are desperate to stay in power”. The image that emerges here is that of just another PR firm gone rogue, dealing with unethical African politicians.
But Cambridge Analytica is far from that, and operates within the remit of Western states. CA and SCL, their parent company, have close ties with US and UK government agencies. They have been providing services to military and intelligence agencies (see the SCL website here, and in-depth investigations into these links here and here).
Their personnel is linked to a much bigger PR industry that has spearheaded all kinds of corporate and political campaigns in Africa for decades. Before landing a job at CA, Mark Turnbull worked for a long time for British multinational PR firm Bell Pottinger — yes, the same Bell Pottinger that had to stop its activities when it emerged that they worked for the disgraced Gupta family in South Africa.
We do want to know more about the important research cited in this article. The authors have studied the impact of elections in Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, supported by public research funding from the UK — a foreign state that has its own national interest at heart. Is it really the role of researchers in such a position to reassure the public that Cambridge Analytica’s influence has been exaggerated, and Africa is not “the victim of European or American schemes”?
What we need is commissions of inquiries mandated in the affected countries, and possibly at the African Union level too, given the transnational nature of the companies involved.
We also need to start applying the same standards of analysis and judgement in Africa and the West. Russian influence in Western politics has become, rightly or wrongly, a central topic of concern. The recent Cambridge Analytica investigations provide alarming revelations about meddling into African elections. Why should African voters be treated any differently?
Vito Laterza is a visiting research fellow in the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town.