The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Hillary Clinton thinks the U.S. election was similar to Kenya’s flawed vote

Hillary Clinton signs copies of her book “What Happened” at a book store in New York on Sept. 12. (Seth Wenig/AP)

NAIROBI — In an interview Monday, Hillary Clinton was asked whether she might question the legitimacy of the 2016 U.S. presidential election if more information is revealed showing Russian interference. Her answer: Yes.

And then she turned to an unlikely comparison: last month’s elections in Kenya.

In the NPR interview, Clinton made a bold connection between her loss and the Kenyan election, which initially appeared to end in a second term being awarded to President Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenya's Supreme Court annulled the results of that race, saying the voting process wasn't fair and transparent.

Clinton said both the elections were a “project of Cambridge Analytica.”

She then seemed to link the data company to the “really unanswered and problematic questions” that troubled the Kenyan court.

Clinton’s argument appears to be: If Cambridge Analytica’s role led to Kenya’s election results being dismissed, then perhaps its work for Donald Trump is enough grounds to cast doubt on the results of the U.S. election. A transcript of the interview is here.

There are major problems with this reasoning. Concerns about the Kenyan election don’t focus on Cambridge Analytica. Rather, they were related to the transmission of vote results.

Clinton, who is promoting her new book, “What Happened,” said she is “only beginning to delve into” what happened in Kenya.

Still, her comments serve to highlight the growing role of large data companies, particularly Cambridge Analytica, in elections well beyond the United States and Europe. The comments also underscore the resonance of the Kenyan Supreme Court’s decision — one of the few times a court anywhere has thrown out a national election result.

“We have no such provision in our country,” Clinton said in the interview, referring to the role Kenya's high court plays in evaluating election complaints. “And, usually, we don't need it.”

Cambridge Analytica, which has offices in New York, Washington and London, compiles vast amounts of demographic information that it then uses to target messages and advertisements at key voters. The company worked for the pro-Brexit movement in Britain and the Trump campaign in 2016. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser, once served as vice president of its board. Robert Mercer, the Republican donor and a key investor in the right-wing Breitbart News Network, owns a large stake in the company.

Cambridge Analytica did not respond to questions about Clinton’s recent comments.

The company has been at the center of much controversy over the past year. The British government’s Information Commissioner's Office has expressed concerns about the way Cambridge Analytica uses personal data. The office is investigating the company’s role in the Brexit referendum campaign.

But that didn’t stop Kenyatta from hiring Cambridge Analytica to conduct research for his reelection campaign. Indeed, he had hired the firm in 2013 as well, during his first run for president.

Back then, the firm did the same kind of work that many survey or data companies do. It explained its role in Kenyatta’s 2013 campaign on its website: “Sampling and interviewing 47,000 respondents, CA was able to draft an effective campaign strategy based on the electorate’s real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).”

The company has been clear about its global ambitions. It has also worked in South Africa, Colombia, Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago, according to its website.

But by May 2017, when Kenyatta rehired the company, its reputation had grown exponentially. And Kenyans had become some of the most active social media users in Africa, making it easier to reach them with tailored Facebook and Google advertisements.

Kenya has a population of 48 million, and it has 39 million cellphone lines and 32 million Internet users, according to the country's communications authority. Many people receive their news online, including on messaging services such as WhatsApp.

Throughout this year's election cycle, those platforms were loaded with “fake news,” including stories that maligned opposition leader Raila Odinga as well as Kenyatta. A government spokesman called the stories “poorly camouflaged propaganda.”