Elections are expensive, hotly contested affairs, and political consultants who appear to offer a candidate any edge are in high demand across the world. At the heart of the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica are the unethical lengths to which such organizations will go to secure that edge, particularly in African countries like Kenya and Nigeria where there are fewer safeguards against such manipulation, and where the effects aren’t limited to the election of an unsavory candidate but include matters of life and death. Until recently, the impact of manipulations in electoral process by Western political consultants in Africa has been largely ignored, but in the past three years the consequences have become clear. The tactics that now have the United States and the United Kingdom in a panic resemble the election tinkering elsewhere.
A few days after the reports about Cambridge Analytica harvesting data from millions of Facebook users to predict and influence the behavior of American voters, Channel 4 televised a documentary featuring the data firm’s senior executives gloating to undercover reporters about secretly running the election campaigns of Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president of Kenya. The report confirmed that Cambridge Analytica had been working in Kenya since 2013, and added some alarming details about the extent of that work. Mark Turnbull, a managing director at Cambridge Analytica, alleges that the firm essentially built Kenya’s ruling party from scratch: “the branding, the speeches…all of it,” he says in the video.
Cambridge Analytica presents its work as unique, but companies that combine analytics and public relations are a dime a dozen. Moreover, several were deeply involved in the Kenyan election. Targeted social-media advertisements, many containing dangerous ethnonationalist rhetoric, proliferated. Key terms on search engines like Google were manipulated so that the first result in a query for opposition candidate Raila Odinga would lead to a website either supporting President Kenyatta or attacking Odinga.