Did UK firm undermine our democracy, fuel tensions?

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have been accused of misusing clients' personal data. PHOTO | FIE | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The company is known for running campaigns that some believe amount to psychological warfare.
  • Was the firm behind the "uthamaki" movement that saw Mr Kenyatta win by a landslide in central Kenya?

Did President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee party win the 2013 and 2017 elections fairly, or did a United Kingdom-based political consultancy company help them win by unethical means?

This question has surfaced after the release of an explosive documentary aired on the UK’s Channel 4 News last week that shows the managing director of Cambridge Analytica, Mark Turnbull, admitting to stage-managing the last two elections in Kenya — from rebranding Jubilee to even writing its manifesto and speeches.


In 2017, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica captures voters’ digital personal information — from sources including airline bookings and magazine subscriptions — to craft individual messages to create “an alt-right news and information ecosystem” that persuades people to vote for certain candidates.

The company, owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, is known for running campaigns that some believe amount to “psychological warfare”.

In the Channel 4 News documentary, Turnbull is shown telling undercover reporters that the company uses people’s deep-seated hopes and fears to manipulate them.


“It is no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it is all about emotion,” he said.

The question Kenyans, must ask is whether the firm undermined our democracy and made a mockery of our elections by manipulating people’s emotions.

Is it responsible for deepening ethnic divisions in our society?

The manipulation of people’s fears and emotions also raises ethical questions.


In a country like Kenya, where ethnic tensions have led to violence and bloodshed, is Cambridge Analytica not being irresponsible by stoking these tensions?

Was the firm behind the "uthamaki" movement that saw Mr Kenyatta win by a landslide in central Kenya?

Or the social media campaign to instil fear about a Raila presidency — and Luos in general?


The company’s executives also admitted to the reporters that they dig the dirt on their clients’ political opponents and often hire spies and sex workers to obtain potentially embarrassing information.

This makes one wonder what dirt they had on Nasa leaders and whether the Uhuru-Raila “golden handshake” was also not part of their strategy.

The documentary would not have become such a global sensation if the company had not been accused of acquiring private data from 50 million Facebook users to help its clients — which, reportedly, include US President Donald Trump — to manipulate people and get them to vote in a particular way.


A whistleblower who worked with an academic from Cambridge University to collect personal data from Facebook has admitted that it was being used by Cambridge Analytica to send out personalised political messages to voters during the 2016 US election.

The data was collected through an app called Thisisyourdigitallife.

Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing.


Before the August election, I warned Kenyans through this column that this controversial company’s unethical tactics amounted to social engineering and could lead to the spread of hate speech and fake news during the campaign period.

Now, Cambridge Analytica’s bosses have admitted that there are few lines they will not cross to get their clients elected.

The revelations have once again brought to sharp focus the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections.


What else do we not know about how these polls were conducted?

A UK investigation has demanded that Cambridge Analytica open its servers to scrutiny to see whether there were any breaches of people’s privacy.

Interestingly, a similar demand of the Independent Electoral Boundaries and Commission by the Supreme Court of Kenya was ignored.

Do Cambridge Analytica’s actions constitute a gross invasion of privacy, and are they illegal?


In 2017, in the wake of corruption scandals involving former South African president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family, the Guptas’ UK-based PR company Bell Pottinger was accused of initiating a cynical campaign that pitted the country’s whites against blacks.

When details of the “economic apartheid” campaign were exposed, the company lost credibility and collapsed.

Now Facebook is being accused of not protecting users’ private information and of allowing this data to be viewed by third parties without the owners’ consent.


This scandal has seen Facebook stock market prices plummet; its profitability has dropped dramatically, and the revelations could convince millions of users to close their accounts.

Cambridge Analytica faces a similar fate.