My research broadly tackles questions of technology, equity, and accountability within the Global South. I emphasise the West’s use of sub-Saharan Africa as a testing ground or laboratory for its nascent technologies before launching them in the West. This blog is an excerpt from my recent presentation at the 2022 Gates Day of Research, titled “Building to Brexit: How Cambridge Analytica Influenced Nigeria’s Presidential Elections.”
Cambridge Analytica & Nigeria
In what some scholars have termed as the “digital war in Africa”, companies and sometimes even governments and wealthy private individuals are leveraging digital media propaganda in covert ways to influence the traditional running of democratic elections. In relation to their 2007 work in Nigeria, SCL Group – of which Cambridge Analytica is a subsidiary – admitted to advising that “a more effective strategy might be to persuade opposition voters not to vote at all – an action that could be easily monitored”.
In order to realise this, SCL Group organised “anti-election rallies on the day of polling in opposition strongholds.” Opposition strongholds are regions where there is significant support for the major candidate that Cambridge Analytica did not want to win. Such rallies were led by local religious figures to “maximise their appeal especially among the spiritual, rural communities”. Those reflecting on this election and the controversy around it recall it as “one of the worst they had ever seen” in Nigeria. Examples of election interference and fraud were abundant, with “reported incidents of ballot stuffing, theft of election materials, vote buying, underage voting, altering of official results forms, and widespread violence”. The European Union had 150 observers monitoring this election. They determined the election fell “far short” of basic standards.
The 2015 elections
In 2015, Cambridge Analytica continued their targeted election content in Nigeria with campaigns promoting Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election. In December 2014, Brittany Kaiser, a senior executive at Cambridge Analytica – and later a prominent whistleblower – had been introduced to an unnamed Nigerian oil billionaire who was interested in contracting Cambridge Analytica to run a covert presidential elections campaign in favour of the incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan.
In the election, Jonathan represented the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and was opposed by Muhammadu Buhari who represented the All Progressives Congress (APC). That same month, and less than eight weeks before the election was due to occur, Kaiser flew to Washington, D.C. to meet with the Nigerian team with whom she would be working. The proposed budget for the campaign to defeat Buhari was £2 million (₦1.05 billion or $2.5 million).
Buhari’s campaign was run by AKPD Message and Media. This was the same firm from which former President Barack Obama’s strategist David Axelrod had come. As a result, there were noticeable parallels in how the campaigns of Buhari and Obama were run, particularly around the tenets of hope on which both were fixed. One former Cambridge Analytica employee described the campaign this way: “It was the kind of campaign that was our bread and butter…We’re employed by a billionaire who’s panicking at the idea of a change of government and who wants to spend big to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s work have confirmed that the company engaged foreign assistance from Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube who helped the team hack records to acquire medical and financial information about Buhari.
To aid their campaign, Cambridge Analytica also leveraged violent video propaganda by promoting anti-Buhari content that suggested to viewers that Buhari would support Boko Haram, a well-known and feared terrorist group, and would end women’s rights. As many of us know, and as media research at MIT confirmed, “lies laced with anger and hate… spread faster and further than facts.” Although Cambridge Analytica’s campaign efforts proved futile – Buhari won the election with nearly 54 percent of the popular vote – it can be inferred that this propaganda campaign did influence some voters. However, a concrete causal relationship is difficult to ascertain at this point.
Jonathan Goodluck’s defeat marked the first time in Nigerian presidential election history that an incumbent had lost their re-election campaign. It was also the first time since the nation’s independence that the sitting government peacefully transferred power to an elected member of the opposition party. In addition to Cambridge Analytica’s unsuccessful campaign, a number of challenges surrounded this election. These challenges were primarily technical and logistical and included the election being postponed by six weeks by the electoral commission to account for issues with biometric card readers at the polls, a Boko Haram insurgency in the northeastern states and the poor distribution of Permanent Voter Cards.
Democracy in danger
As Ekdale and Tully report, “most newspaper articles in Nigeria that focused on Cambridge Analytic discussed data privacy and social media campaigning. The Nigerian…press focused on Facebook and data. But very few stories wrestled with the role of foreign actors in national elections. Important questions about campaigning and election interference received less attention. This could mean that the door has been left open to ongoing foreign involvement in future elections, given that Cambridge Analytica used African elections as a testing ground for campaign tactics it later exported into more lucrative markets. It did this with little regard for the negative consequences on the emerging democracies.”
When Nigeria did report on Cambridge Analytica, the story was skewed as “Nigerian newspapers quickly framed the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a partisan issue between two competing political parties, without discussion of the threat of disinformation, voter suppression and the declining health of democracy in the nation”.
If people are continuously presented with false information, so much so that it makes the truth seem false, how then can we make informed decisions about electoral matters?
As Nobel laureate Maria Ressa challenges us to consider: “What are we willing to sacrifice for the truth? Because these are the times we live in.” This is a question we as citizens and residents of our respective nations must consider, but it is also a larger charge of accountability that our governments and the politicians who run them ought to reckon with.
*Myesha Jemison  is doing her PhD in Education. Picture credit: Muhammadu Buhari’s at an election rally in 2015, courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and Wikimedia commons.