Kenya’s 2017 election has become one of the many political events embroiled in the allegations against UK-based political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. Shortly after the reconciliation between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, the international media revealed footage of the managing director of SCL Group — an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica’s — Mark Turnbull, bragging about ‘having stage managed Kenyatta’s campaign’. It went on to quote Turnbull saying: ‘We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate.’
For one thing, these reports should be carefully considered and put into context. There is, of course, also the question of how effective digital targeting based on information derived from Facebook profiles can be in a country where access to social media is still limited. Cambridge Analytica has probably overplayed their ability to sway entire demographics before elections. The majority of voters in Kenya still rely on traditional media, and radio still has a much wider reach than social media.
However, two points are critical. First, that in a tightly contested election, small numbers do matter. Second, that the related ‘fake news’ material produced to influence voters can exacerbate existing divisions and tensions. For instance, in the 2007/2008 post-election violence, 1,500 were killed according to official data, and around 600,000 displaced.
It was interesting to note that Odinga offered a fairy lukewarm response to the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Reacting a few days later, he was quoted as saying that he was considering suing both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, but in practice, he is unlikely to do so. Odinga is not only notoriously careful with his resources — and will be reluctant to spend the significant sums required for international lawyers — but will also want to avoid upsetting his newfound alliance with Kenyatta.
While he spared no opportunity to accuse Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party of hacking the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) servers and other digital misdeeds in the run up to, and after, the 2017 elections, he remained silent on Jubilee’s apparent role as Cambridge Analytica’s client. This may be telling of what was settled by the ‘handshake agreement’.