Canadian whistle-blower Christopher Wylie calls it a “privatized colonial operation” by wealthy British and Canadian consultants: a high-tech, dirty-tricks campaign to manipulate the elections of weak and vulnerable African democracies.
The consultants, he says, were rich and bored. “Going into the developing world and running a country is something that appeals to them,” he told a committee of the British House of Commons.
In documents and testimony, Mr. Wylie alleged that consultants such as Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Group had deployed a range of aggressive tactics in Nigerian and Kenyan elections: social-media propaganda, anti-Muslim videos, hacking into the medical records of an opposition leader, using religious leaders to suppress the vote in opposition strongholds, and misusing personal data from Facebook and other internet sources.
Their partner in their latest Nigerian operation, he said, was the Canadian firm AggregateIQ. The Victoria-based company says it has “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity” and never had access to Facebook data that Cambridge Analytica allegedly obtained improperly.
Mr. Wylie’s testimony was a scathing account of cynical interference by unethical consultants, recklessly endangering Africa’s emerging democracies. But it omitted one key fact: most voters were too skeptical to be manipulated.
In the rough-and-tumble world of African democracies, the campaigns by Western consultants were just one of many domestic and foreign attempts to influence the elections with covert methods. Their tactics were often unsuccessful. African voters were protected by their own distrust of the tactics of their politicians.
It is difficult to measure the full impact of the interference by SCL and others. The promotional boasts of the consulting firms, however, seem to be highly exaggerated.
“This is not to say that Cambridge Analytica doesn’t present a threat to democracy, or that it should not be ashamed of itself or face investigation,” said a commentary by three British scholars who have studied African elections. “But it is to say that its impact in Africa has been overhyped because it serves a variety of interests to do so.”
In Nigeria, Mr. Wylie alleged that Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ had distributed anti-Muslim videos on social media in 2015 to help the then-president Goodluck Jonathan and his ruling party in their efforts to defeat opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari. But the tactics were a dismal failure. Despite the huge resources it enjoyed from incumbency, the ruling party was badly beaten by Mr. Buhari’s party, which defeated Mr. Jonathan by a comfortable majority of 54 per cent to 45 per cent.
One reason for the failure of Cambridge Analytica’s tactics in 2015 was the simple reality that both sides did it. Both of the major parties used “inflammatory language and hate speech,” according to a postelection report by the European Union’s election monitoring mission. Both sides used negative tactics, religious and ethnic appeals, escalating accusations and fierce personal attacks, the report said.
And both sides recruited the advice of foreign election consultants, with Mr. Buhari hiring a U.S. strategic firm, AKPD Message and Media, founded by the former campaign manager of ex-president Barack Obama.
The SCL Group claimed to have suppressed the opposition vote in the 2007 Nigerian election by using religious leaders to hold anti-election rallies. But the entire 2007 election was discredited by widespread vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing tactics. European observers said it was one of the worst elections they had ever seen.
Even SCL acknowledged that Nigerian voters were too cynical to fall for the crudest manipulation tactics. “The overall disrespect of politicians meant that whilst voters would accept politicians’ money, in the privacy of the election booth they would vote for whomever they preferred,” SCL said in a brochure for its services.
In Kenya, there were similarly exaggerated boasts. Mark Turnbull, a senior executive of Cambridge Analytica, in an exchange filmed by undercover reporters, claimed that his firm controlled “just about every element” of the election campaign of President Uhuru Kenyatta last year. He said his company “staged the whole thing.”
But it, too, failed to produce a credible victory for Mr. Kenyatta. The first round of the election was nullified by Kenya’s Supreme Court because of widespread illegalities, and the opposition boycotted the second election, leaving Mr. Kenyatta with only a disputed victory.
“The campaign led by Cambridge Analytica does not seem to have been that different to the ones that preceded it,” said the commentary by the three British election scholars, who are based at the University of Warwick, Durham University and the University of Birmingham.
“For all the claims of a high-tech innovative strategy, their real role appears to have been to advocate negative campaigning,” the professors said. “But there is nothing new about this.”
The scholars, who set up multiple Facebook profiles to study political advertising on Kenya’s social media, found no evidence that private data was being used to target different messages to different voters. “Instead a consistent negative line was pushed on all profiles, no matter what their background,” they said.
Social-media advertising could not swing the wider electorate, they said. “Surveys show that radio remains the major source of information, and that Kenyans are highly skeptical of the reliability of social media.”
Foreign consultants working for political clients have attempted to manipulate Africans with social-media campaigns in the past, and have often failed. In South Africa, for example, former president Jacob Zuma’s son and the son’s business partners hired the British public-relations firm Bell Pottinger to advise them on how to use racial smear tactics against Mr. Zuma’s enemies. The social-media tactics failed, an industry association banned Bell Pottinger from the public-relations sector and the company collapsed.