Over the past few months, Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct United Kingdom-based data firm, has come under fire for its involvement in the 2016 American presidential elections. According to reporting, the company gained access to Facebook data of close to ninety million Americans without their consent, and used it to micro-target voters.
This past election cycle in the United States was already a controversial one, having been marred with reports of foreign interference, targeted political advertising, and disinformation campaigns. The unmasking of Cambridge Analytica’s role in the election no doubt sent shudders through the spine of American democracy. But, it isn’t the first time the firm has influenced the shape and outcome of a country’s elections and political landscape. Its fingerprints on global political institutions date back to the mid-2000’s and span a number of countries. So why wasn’t the United States ready?
As revealed in a UK Channel 4 News undercover segment, in which a reporter posing as a prospective client from Sri Lanka meets with Cambridge Analytica executives, the firm has played a troubling role in political campaigns and operations in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, and Latvia. In addition, recent investigations revealed that the company was in conversations with political parties in countries such as Mexico and India regarding collaboration for upcoming election cycles.
In Kenya, for example, the firm was found to have had a longstanding relationship with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, having supported his campaigns extensively in 2013 and 2017. According to Alexander Nix, the firm’s now suspended chief executive officer, the company has “rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys…and then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing, so just about every element of his campaign.” In addition, the firm’s executives bragged about running campaigns in the nation based on fear rather than facts and were accused of developing misinformation campaigns that stoked societal tensions and smeared opposition candidate Raila Odinga.
Now that the controversy with Facebook has been in the news, a simple web search of the role Cambridge Analytica played in influencing foreign elections and political outcomes returns a disconcerting number of results. But the fact that these issues have only been brought to light once they’ve impacted more prominent nations such as the United States demonstrates the continued failure of experts in the political and technology spaces to observe and learn from the lessons of other nations around the world. As a result, no one had yet sounded the alarm, and the United States did not prepare for and protect against such intrusions and influences.
Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, called the involvement of the firm in the political affairs of other nations a form of “modern day colonialism” and in many ways he is right. However, this frame recreates the colonial dichotomy which suggests that operations and conditions within colonized nations are far different, and far worse, than those within colonizing countries. Such labels imply issues such as election meddling are symptomatic of a state of underdevelopment and backwardness, and that as a result those in more modern regions of the world are immune to them. Data, however, doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of one’s socioeconomic or geographic background, a user’s digital footprint can be harnessed by companies such as Cambridge Analytica to construct an image of one’s personality traits, including “hopes and fears” and subsequently target them, whether it be for simple purchases or political events.
The central question is not why or how the United States was a target of this data-centered manipulation model. Rather, it should be why the United States was not ready for it. As further investigations have been conducted on the role of disinformation campaigns, attacks on critical and technological infrastructure, and foreign election meddling tools in the United States, numerous reports have surfaced that demonstrate that these methods were all tried and tested in smaller, more fragile nations experiencing political and social instability. Had more attention been devoted to events in other countries, these case studies could have served as a warning of how technology and data could be harnessed to manipulate election outcomes in the United States when it entered a similar political moment. In the future, it would serve policymakers, and the public, well to realize that if it can happen elsewhere, it can happen here. Looking outward has its benefits, and sometimes it’s necessary.
About the author: Spandana Singh is currently serving as a Millennial Public Policy Fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute where she works on issues of privacy, surveillance, cybersecurity and countering violent extremism. Spandana is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and has previously worked at organizations such as the East-West Institute, Twitter, the World Bank Group and UNICEF.