The data mining company Cambridge Analytica has come under criticism recently. In the U.S., it is accused of taking information from 50 million Facebook accounts without users’ permission. The company then reportedly used the information to create campaign messages for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The government of Brazil is also investigating Cambridge Analytica for possible privacy violations.
Now, new reports say Cambridge Analytica played a role in African elections. In some countries, it may have exploited existing conflict.
South African election violence
The company first became involved in Africa during the general election in South Africa in 1994. That year, the apartheid government ended and Nelson Mandela won the presidency.
But the months leading up to the election saw political and ethnic conflict. The Inkatha Freedom Party, which represented South Africa’s largest ethnic population – the Zulu — clashed with the African National Congress (ANC).
The conflict led to violence before the election, said Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the University of London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
A political party hired Cambridge Analytica to lower the election violence, the company's website said. It does not say which party hired Cambridge Analytica. And the company’s exact role has not been confirmed. However, violence decreased during and after the vote for Mandela and the ANC.
Involvement in Kenya, Nigeria
More recently, Cambridge Analytica worked with Kenya's ruling Jubilee Party. The firm designed a campaign plan using interviews with nearly 50,000 future voters over three months.
In an undercover video broadcast this week on Britain's Channel 4 News, Cambridge Analytica executive Mark Turnbull said the company and its parent group, SCL Group, ran the Kenyatta campaign. Turnbull claimed Cambridge Analytica created the campaign marketing, wrote speeches, and designed the party’s image.
The company has been accused of creating social media videos to exploit some voters’ fears. The videos warned that a victory by opposition leader Raila Odinga would lead to disease, starvation and terrorism.
Cambridge Analytica denied involvement in the videos or negative campaigning in Kenya.
The company was also reportedly involved in Nigerian elections. The Guardian reported Wednesday that Israeli hackers provided Cambridge Analytica with President Muhammadu Buhari's personal emails.
Buhari was running against then-president Goodluck Jonathan. A wealthy Nigerian paid Cambridge Analytica $2.8 million to find damaging information about Buhari as part of an attack campaign, The Guardian reported.
The e-mails included information about Buhari’s health and medical records.
Data research companies such as Cambridge Analytica provide information to governments and political parties, Plaut said, to influence "people in the middle." These people hold moderate views and can often be persuaded by emotional appeals.
Data research companies identify whom to target and how to create messages that play on their hopes and fears, not facts, Plaut said.
Julie Owono is executive director of Internet Without Borders, a group that supports online freedom and privacy. She told VOA's French to Africa service that her organization has been warning about the dangers of letting companies like Facebook collect the personal data of billions of people around the world.
She says countries that do not protect data can be exploited by companies and governments that do not have users’ best interests in mind.
Protecting democracy from the Internet
African voters, Plaut said, "are as open to manipulation as any voter in the world." He added that while they are intelligent voters who know politicians create messages for their own needs, they still can be influenced by the effects of disinformation.
The solution, says Plaut, is international management.
"The African Union should be much more robust in insisting on its observers going to see elections and spending a good deal of time there, not just five minutes before the vote takes place," Plaut said.
He added that governments should release information, months in advance of elections, which give the public more ability to identify fake news, and what their governments have done to ensure a free and fair process.
I’m Phil Dierking.
This story was originally written by Salem Solomon for VOA. Phil Dierking adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
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Words in This Story
apartheid - n. a former social system in South Africa in which black people and people from other racial groups did not have the same political and economic rights as white people and were forced to live separately from white people
data - n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something
digital - adj. using or characterized by computer technology
exploit - v. to use (someone or something) in a way that helps you unfairly
hacker - n. a person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc. : a person who hacks into a computer system
insist - v. to demand that something happen or that someone do something
manipulate - v. to deal with or control (someone or something) in a clever and usually unfair or selfish way
robust - adj. strong and healthy
undercover - adj. done or working in a secret way in order to catch criminals or collect information