Democracy, data and dirty tricks: That’s what Channel 4 television in the UK uncovered during an investigation of British data firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), a company involved in political campaigns across the globe – including President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Jubilee party in Kenya’s 2017 election.
The Channel 4 team secretly filmed CA principals including CEO Alexander Nix and manager Mark Turnbull discussing work with someone posing as a Sri Lankan client hoping to influence an election. Turnbull, and later Nix, explained how they use data drawn from social media to craft highly targeted messages, but they also described methods for compromising candidates – including the film evidence of corruption through cash and land bribes, or entrapment with Ukrainian sex workers.
Channel 4 shows the CA executives on tape, bragging about their role in Kenya’s elections in both 2013 and 2017, as well as elections in Nigeria, Mexico, Malaysia and for United States President Donald Trump. The television station plans another segment devoted entirely to Trump’s campaign.
“It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts,” Turnbull said, “because actually it’s all about emotion.” The 20-minute segment then turns to Kenya and how emotion played into electoral violence, with Turnbull bragging about CA’s role in branding the Jubilee party, conducting political research and more.
“Then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing,” Turnbull said, showing off scenes from Kenyatta’s campaign on a laptop.
Investigation impacts in Kenya
A spokesman for the Jubilee Party said Tuesday that it hired CA consultants to support Kenyatta’s candidacy. “They were basically branding and all that but not directly,” said David Murathe, the party vice chairman, on the role of CA affiliate Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) in Kenya’s elections. It’s the first public comment from Jubilee on the data-firm debacle since this latest news, although Jubilee’s hiring of CA was widely reported by Africa Times and other outlets in 2017.
Kenyatta was re-elected in the country’s August 8, 2017, election but Nasa coalition candidate Raila Odinga and his supporters succeeded in a legal challenge to have results set aside by Kenya’s Supreme Court. Odinga has never accepted the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s win – the president cruised to victory in a second contest boycotted by Nasa – and as recently as January conducted his own symbolic swearing-in.
Despite a recent peacemaking overture between Odinga and Kenyatta during the diplomatic visit of former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month, the parties remain bitterly divided. The electoral violence of 2017 claimed at least 100 lives in echoes of the unrest that marred the 2007 vote. Much of Nasa’s case rested on how information systems and technology were being used – Kenyan elections IT expert Chris Msando was murdered last July – and Nasa officials said Tuesday they want a thorough investigation into SCL and CA’s Kenyan operations.
Yet Kenya joins a growing list of nations, including the United States and UK, in which CA faces scrutiny for what many argue is the manipulation of data to undermine democracy. The Channel 4 investigation was conducted with the New York Times and The Guardian, after the latter faced mounting legal pressure from CA and other entities and sought support for its work among the other news outlets. These include a reported warning from Facebook, which is under fire for its role in releasing user data, a lucrative practice whistleblowers say was widespread.
British MPs and the country’s information commissioner are launching investigations, while the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced an investigation into whether Facebook violated an agreement on data privacy, the Times reported. Lawmakers also are calling for deeper inquiry after reports that information on 50 million of its users was improperly obtained by CA, a company linked to Trump supporter and co-owner Steve Bannon.
Cambridge Analytica responds
Cambridge Analytica on Monday issued a statement saying it “rejects the allegations” made by Channel 4 and charged that the report “is edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business.” By Tuesday night, however, the company’s board disclosed that Nix had been placed under suspension.
“In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation,” the statement said. Dr. Alexander Tayler will serve as interim CEO during an independent investigation into Nix and the Channel 4 report allegations.
The company earlier said it entertains a wide range of possibilities with clients, and did not wish to embarrass a potential client making unethical suggestions – so Channel 4 captured them merely playing along, they say.
“I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case. I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps,’ and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose,” Nix said. “I deeply regret my role in the meeting and I have already apologized to staff. I should have recognized where the prospective client was taking our conversations and ended the relationship sooner.”
The company says its business interests require discretion, and its work is no different than that of other marketing agencies or political campaigns seeking to influence communities online.
To view the entire Channel 4 report, see this link.
To see the full Cambridge Analytica response to Channel 4, see this link.
Image: Channel Four