Information operations · Information Warfare

Data and Democracy: What Role Did Cambridge Analytica Play in Kenya’s Elections?


Ballot boxes. Photo by Sheila Rouge, labeled for reuse.

Written by Njeri Wangari

The powerful reach of Cambridge Analytica — the data analysis company that helped Donald Trump’s campaign claim victory in the US — has become a source of concern in Kenya’s ongoing conflict over national elections.

This week, bloggers associated with the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition published a leaked page of what they said was an internal memo describing tactics used by Cambridge Analytica to pursue victory for incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, of the Jubilee party.

A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica told Global Voices that the document was “entirely fabricated.”

The UK-based company has been in the limelight since Donald Trump’s election victory in the US. The company was hired to analyze data about undecided voters and target them with information intended to sway them in Trump’s favor.

The false memo alleges that the company undertook “psychological measures” to make opposition supporters and members of the Luo ethnic group “appear violent” in an effort to discredit their political voices. It also urges them to “emotionally manipulate” supporters of the ruling party in order to guarantee their votes.

It remains unknown who fabricated the memo, but its contents seem intended to leverage the increasingly widespread mistrust of the ruling party and its supporters. It has added fuel to an already raging debate over national elections that took place earlier this year. Although incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta technically secured a majority of votes in August elections, his victory was challenged by opposition leader Raila Odinga (of the NASA coalition) and then nullified by the Supreme Court, on grounds that the country’s election systems were flawed.

Since that decision came down, a re-vote has taken place, and Kenyatta once again has prevailed. But critics and opposition leaders say the election systems used to count votes saw no improvement in the interim, and millions of Kenyans responded by boycotting the re-run on October 26, leaving even more uncertainty around the country’s political future. Some opposition leaders say they will protest against the re-run results.

Violent clashes have erupted in various parts of the country, wherein a small minority of individuals appear to be instigating violence.

In this recent election cycle, online actors — presumably working in the interests of the ruling party — have endeavored to stereotype one community, the Luo, as violent, and building the assumption that the main opposition party only has supporters from that community. This has only deepened the rift between the Luo and the ruling Jubilee party.

What exactly is Cambridge Analytica doing in Kenya?

“Big Data. Behavioral Micro-targeting. Political Campaign Support. Digital Support.” This is how Cambridge Analytica identifies its activities in its Twitter profile.

Although the memo in circulation this week is now confirmed to be false, it has still underlined a key question for many Kenyans: what exactly is Cambridge Analytica doing in Kenya?

Kenya’s incumbent Jubilee party did, in fact, hire Cambridge Analytica to help run their campaign. In May 2017, local daily newspaper The Star reported that Uhuru Kenyatta had signed a contract with the UK-based company.

This is not the first contract between the company and the ruling party. Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013 when the company worked for Uhuru Kenyatta and The National Alliance (TNA), the forerunner to the Jubilee Party.

During that year’s campaign, the company conducted 47,000 on-the-ground surveys. According to the Cambridge Analytica website, this allowed the company to create a profile of the Kenyan electorate and come up with a campaign strategy “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).”

Case study on Kenya, by Cambridge Analytica. Screenshot from Cambridge Analytica website.

The case study also described how the company worked to mobile potential youth supporters on social media:

Of the audiences identified, our work highlighted that the youth cohort were an underutilized party asset that could be highly influential if mobilized. To connect with this audience, CA’s communications and strategy team devised an online social media campaign to generate a hugely active online following.

Kenyatta won the 2013 election. In 2017, when the Jubilee party once again contracted their services, the BBC published an article on Cambridge Analytica and the company’s ongoing ‘project’ in Kenya. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica told BBC Trending that the company is not involved in any negative advertising in Kenya, and that the company “has never advocated the exploitation of ethnic divisions in any country.”

This begs the question of what type of strategy the company might have proposed (as stated in their materials above) that would be based on the electorate’s fears of tribal violence.

The BBC report was published just five days before Kenya’s general election, which was later nullified by the Supreme Court.

Cambridge Analytica’s work on behalf of the Jubilee party should also raise questions about the implications of a governing political party acquiring and sharing the data of millions of Kenyans with a private company. Kenya does not have a data protection law that safeguards the privacy of its citizen against the potential consequences of using their personal data, nor does the country have legal limits on how such data is stored or accessed.

Ethnic tensions exploited on social media

Regardless of the involvement of outside companies, portrayals of Luos as inherently violent have been widespread on Kenyan social media, and have had real consequences throughout the country. In towns such as Siaya, Homabay and Kisumu, where internet is still a luxury, residents have felt a direct impact of the profiling and depiction of the Luo community as violent people.

According to an Aljazeera report on Kenya, at least 37 people including three children have been killed in the protests that followed the announcement of election results. Almost all the victims of the violence were killed in opposition strongholds in the slums of the capital, Nairobi, or the western part of the country.

In June 2017, UK-based NGO Privacy International warned against using ethnicity as a political tool to manipulate citizens. The group described the pitfalls of collecting data about millions of Kenyans to profile, target, and persuade voters on behalf of the Kenyan president, pointing to Kenya’s 2007 general election, when tribal clashes and ethnic violence led to 1,500 deaths and left more than 600,000 people homeless.

There has been evidence that the incumbent president played a role in these clashes. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court filed charges against Uhuru Kenyatta and his now-deputy, William Ruto, on allegations that they instigated crimes against humanity, resulting in incidents of ethnic violence. However, the charges against them have been withdrawn, as evidence has been insufficient, due in part to the fact that key witnesses have died or disappeared.

Kenya is the first developing country known to have used the services of Cambridge Analytica to influence election outcomes through big data and behavioral micro-targeting. Although the specific tactics and measures carried out by the company are not entirely known, their contract with the ruling party may be a cautionary tale for other governments — and democracy advocates — in the developing world.

Advertisements