Claims about Cambridge Analytica’s role in Africa should be taken with a pinch of salt


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Take the question of targeted social media campaigns. It is true that material was circulated attacking Odinga as a dangerous and irresponsible leader. Cambridge Analytica may have advised the government to adopt this strategy – although we know that some of the worst videos were actually made by another company Harris Media.

But even if they did, there are two reasons to doubt that it was a new or particularly effective tactic.

First, these messages do not appear to have been targeted. Ahead of the elections, and as part of a comparative research project on elections in Africa, we set up multiple profiles on Facebook to track social media and political adverts, and found no evidence that different messages were directed at different voters. Instead, a consistent negative line was pushed on all profiles, no matter what their background.

Second, the vast majority of Kenyans are not on Facebook, and so there is no reason to think that messages circulated in this way would swing the wider electorate. Instead, surveys show that radio remains the major source of information, and that Kenyans are highly sceptical of the reliability of social media.

In other words, the campaign led by Cambridge Analytica does not seem to have been that different to the ones that preceded it. For all the claims of a hi-tech innovative strategy, their real role appears to have been to advocate negative campaigning. But there is nothing new about this.

Back in 2007, when Raila Odinga’s opposition appeared to be on the brink of winning power, his rivals claimed that his victory would lead to the country’s collapse and circulated flyers with his head superimposed on Idi Amin’s body to drive the point home. This was well before Cambridge Analytica was even formed, and stands as proof that Kenyan leaders don’t need foreign consultants to tell them the value of ethnic scaremongering.

It is also important to keep in mind that you cannot simply use messaging to win votes in a system in which the ethnicity, patronage and credibility of candidates are major drivers of voter behaviour. To mobilise voters to the polls, leaders reinforce their support base by attending funerals and giving generously to the bereaved; attending church and contributing to building funds; turning up at parent-teacher meetings and paying school fees for poor children.

To show generosity at these events is to demonstrate that the candidate acknowledges the morality of voters’ claims and will not forget them once elected. If you don’t do this you will not win, no matter what your PR team is doing.

The tendency to exaggerate Cambridge Analytica’s powers is no accident. Exaggerated claims are part and parcel of the company’s marketing strategy. For journalists, the more powerful the company, the bigger the story. For opposition parties, the more effective Cambridge Analytica is seen to be, the more it can be blamed for an electoral defeat.

There is also something more profound at work: the suspicion that Africa is the victim of European or American schemes is a powerful one. Many, in Africa and elsewhere, will see this as further evidence of that eternal truth. And we are all increasingly suspicious of the power of big data, uneasily aware that we may not have fully grasped the small print of our deal with the tech companies.

We may have good reason for that suspicion – but we should beware of flattering those firms by exaggerating their power and reach.

 

By Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis and Nic Cheeseman.  This article was first published by The Conversation

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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