On Wednesday 2 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica announced that it would be closing down its operations and filing for insolvency in both Britain and the United States. This announcement follows the political consulting firm’s inability to recover from the reputational damage it suffered in the wake of its involvement in the Facebook data scandal.
On Saturday 17 March 2018, the then-relatively little-known firm’s operations came to light when The Observer reported that the company may have hijacked about 87 million Facebook users’ personal data. Whistle-blowers Christopher Wylie and Brittany Kaiser detailed how the firm’s business model - harvesting millions of Facebook users’ personal information and building personalised models specifically targeted at the them- played a significant in Donald Trump’s electoral victory and Brexit’s victory in 2016.
Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in those two electoral victories received the most media attention because of Trump and the Brexit vote election results’ being perceived as having great geopolitical significance. Moreover, these results were largely unexpected outcomes which have led many to reflect on the limitations of the liberal democratic model of politicking. The electoral victories of Trump and the Brexit vote have resulted in many people fearing the downfall of the Western liberal democracy. The truth, however, is that Western democracies are only selectively democratic.
The proliferation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the debates around the refugee crisis have demonstrated that the fruits of Western democracies are only been reserved for those considered legitimate citizens. In the case of the USA, African-Americans have had to endure a precarious positionality in relation to their legitimacy as American citizens. #BlackLivesMatter has only served to highlight the daily engagement with structural racism (and sexism, classism, heteronormativity, transphobia, etc.) that many African-Americans grapple with on a daily basis.
Furthermore, interference by Western nations and supranational bodies in the socio-politico-economic affairs of African nations has also demonstrated the extents of democracy on a wider geopolitical scale. An example of this is the US- and Belgian-orchestrated assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) first democratically elected prime minister.
This assassination was but one example of Western powers doing all that they can to preserve their powerful positions within African nations’ political economy. One only needs to engage with the history of the neo-colonial engagement with Africa in order to truly appreciate the limitation of Western liberal democratic politicking.
Cambridge Analytica was also involved in two African election campaigns and there have been ensuing debates around whether we should pay greater attention to their involvement in these two elections. In 2015, Cambridge Analytica was hired to try and secure the re-election of the then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Of course, we all know how that story panned out.
Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenya, on the other hand, was a bit murky. The consulting firm, alongside its affiliate Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Elections, was involved in Presidential Uhuru Kenyatta’s electoral campaigns in 2013 and 2017.
Mark Turnbull, the then-managing director of Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections, was filmed telling undercover reporters for the UK’s Channel 4 News about the companies’ role in managing Kenyatta’s election campaigns in 2013 and 2017. In 2017, Kenyatta’s first round election victory over the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, was nullified in courts over the basis of “irregularities and illegalities”. Kenyatta did go on to win re-election, a move which has been widely contested by Odinga and other members of Kenya’s political opposition.
With Cambridge Analytica’s unethical and illegal practices coming to light, opposition leaders in Nigeria and Kenya are calling for investigations into whether the firm’s involvement in the elections unduly influenced the outcomes of their elections. In Nigeria, it is more a case of establishing whether the firm interfered with their elections. These include claims that Cambridge Analytica’s affiliate SCL Elections organised anti-election rallies to dissuade opposition supporters from voting in 2007.
Furthermore, there will be an investigation as to whether the company hacked the current Nigerian
President Buhari’s personal data in 2015, when he was an opposition candidate for the presidency during that round of elections. However, it is doubtful as to whether it will really result in criminal prosecution as the firm did fail to secure an electoral victory for then-President Jonathan.
In Kenya, opposition voices are calling for an investigation into the firm’s operations during the 2013 and 2017 elections. The opposition leader, Odingu, has said he will sue the company for its involvement in ethnic scaremongering election campaigns that negatively portrayed himself and other figures in Kenya’s opposition.
Others argue, though, that we should take these claims around Cambridge Analytica’s role in these two African elections with a pinch of salt. Professors Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis, and Nic Cheesemen argue in The Conversation that the company’s impact in Africa has been overstated. They refer to Cambridge Analytica’s failure to secure Jonathan’s re-election in Nigeria.
They also argue that the electioneering scaremongering tactics were not targeted to specific would-be voters. Furthermore, Facebook’s relatively minor market penetration in Kenya would render Cambridge Analytica’s targeting tactics null and void; the company would not have been able to manipulate the wider electorate.
We should remember that election manipulation is not an uncommon occurrence in Africa. What makes the Cambridge Analytica saga so scary is that Western powers are finally experiencing what Africans have had to endure for many decades now.