Larry Madowo is a Kenyan broadcast journalist and writer. He tweets at @LarryMadowo.
No one company should have the power to manipulate the psychology of an entire country. We now know that Cambridge Analytica has done just that — not just in the United States, but also in the fragile political systems of the global south.
The company mined Kenyan voters’ data to help President Uhuru Kenyatta win disputed elections. Over two presidential election cycles, it presided over some of the darkest and most vicious campaigns Kenya has ever seen. Cambridge Analytica confirmed its involvement to an undercover reporter for Britain’s Channel 4, which released an exposé on Monday. Executives were taped saying that they ran “just about every element” of Kenyatta’s campaign in 2013 and 2017, including rebranding his party twice, and writing the campaign’s manifesto and speeches. The firm also did “two rounds of 50,000 surveys.”
In Kenya, Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto breathlessly carped about Western imperialism and neocolonialism while reportedly paying a Western firm millions of dollars to get them elected. The rich irony of this shameless doublespeak aside, there are still many unanswered questions about how far Cambridge Analytica’s work went and what ethical boundaries were breached.
What we know is that Cambridge Analytica helped hijack Kenya’s democracy. It manipulated voters with apocalyptic attack ads and smeared Kenyatta’s opponent Raila Odinga as violent, corrupt and dangerous. The two rivals might have since reconciled with a famous handshake, but that cannot erase the fact that innocent lives were lost because of a divisive campaign or that tribal rifts were opened with long-lasting effects. It is infuriating to hear the company’s embattled and now-suspended CEO, Alexander Nix, flippantly admit that things “don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they are believed.” This is data neocolonialism, the same foreign interference Kenyatta pretended to be against.
According to the New York Times, Cambridge Analytica experimented abroad, including in the Caribbean and Africa, where “privacy rules are lax or nonexistent.” Politicians employing its parent company, SCL Group, were “happy to provide government-held data, according to former employees.” Cambridge Analytica proudly touts case studies in Thailand, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Trinidad and Tobago on its website. A Cambridge Analytica employee said in the Channel 4 exposé that it has also worked in Mexico and Malaysia and was expanding to Brazil and China.
In these developing countries, there has been no word about sanctions or even a demand for answers from Cambridge Analytica. Besides, those who are supposed to penalize the offending companies would likely have the privilege of being the direct beneficiaries of its nefarious operations.
Facebook, Twitter, Google and other technology companies that facilitate or amplify work by outfits such as Cambridge Analytica are complicit in poisoning democracies around the world. In Sri Lanka, Facebook has been accused of fanning hate speech that led to anti-Muslim riots, forcing the country to ban social media after protests left at least two people dead. U.N. officials investigating claims of genocide in Burma, also known as Myanmar, say Facebook was used to spread vitriol against Rohingya Muslims. A political battle in Cambodia between a leading opposition figure and the country’s authoritarian prime minister over accusations of counterfeit “likes” on Facebook pages has spilled into a U.S. court. The Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabab live-tweeted its attack of the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013, leaving Twitter embarrassed and family members in anguish.
While Cambridge Analytica may face sanctions on both sides of the Atlantic, it will likely still get away with mischief and dangerous mind games in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Regulators in those countries must step up to hold companies like this accountable or kick them out completely.
Kenyans must demand transparency and a full investigation. Sadly though, it is hard to imagine that Cambridge Analytica will ever be unwelcome here, when it helped elect the president twice.