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On Cambridge Analytica

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The Federal Government of Nigeria recently constituted an in-house committee to investigate the activities and influence of Cambridge Analytica (CA) on the nation’s general elections in 2007 and 2015.

The committee is charged with investigating the work of CA for the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2007 and 2015 to see if election campaigns broke the laws of Nigeria or infringed on the rights of other parties and their candidates.

Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm that has recently made global headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Cambridge Analytica “uses data to change audience behaviour.” Lurking beneath that simple and direct mission statement appears to be anything but a benign political consulting operation.

CA has a 25-year track-record in ‘data-driven campaigning’ and ‘...promise to find your voter and drive them to action’.

Recent revelations indicate that a lot more than data was being driven as the firm seems to have perfected a sinister back-room role in election campaigns around the world including here in Nigeria. It is not alone.

The recent revelations have been as a result of a former CA whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who revealed the role his former firm played in the use of a data-mining application that was developed by a Cambridge University teacher that harvested profile data of Facebook users and all their Facebook contacts without their knowledge.

Over 87 million Facebook users’ profile data in the United States were acquired unethically and passed on to CA, which was in secret partnership with the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

In Nigeria, it is now public knowledge that only 87 users out of 23 million Nigerian Facebook users utilised this App. However, Facebook estimates that profiles of 271,469 Nigerian members were potentially impacted just from the 87 users.

That is the kind of reach that advertisers can only dream about and, in the wrong hands, a cause for grave concern.

As anyone who is involved with digital marketing knows, Facebook profiles tell the stories of potential customers, their preferences, aspirations, consumption choices, political leanings and most importantly their fears.

Fear is a very powerful predictor of behaviour and a significant driver of voter choice.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign showed that fear was a big factor in the unexpected outcome that propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

CA had become the go-to experts in ruthlessly exploiting the fault-lines and fears prevalent in any electorate.

This is significant in a country like Nigeria that has very deep existing fault-lines built on decades of mis-trust, ethnicity, tribalism and fueled by unscrupulous politicians.

CA arrived unseen and unheard, in Nigeria, offering a means to weaponise information to fully exploit the people’s fault-lines.

Its preferred methodology is to operate in the shadows and through a local partner. Indeed, all Nigerians know is that the firm was retained by an unnamed Nigerian billionaire.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower, revealed that CA was contracted to act in support of the then ruling party, PDP. It is also known that the All Progressives Congress (APC) had its own version of CA working for it.

AKPD, a U.S.-based political consulting firm owned by David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, was retained by the APC from December 2013 to March 2014 and again rehired in December 2014 for a three-week period.

David Axelrod and David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, at AKPD gained fame as the architects of Obama’s 2008 campaign that brought to the fore the importance of data-driven election campaigning, message discipline aligned with micro-targeting of the electorate that changed the way political campaigns are run world-wide.

When the APC’s ‘well-disciplined campaign, running on a singular and clear message of change’, is recalled, the parallels with Obama’s campaign are now obvious.

Unravelling what this means for us Nigerians is not as simple as the Federal Government has laid out in setting up its committee to investigate.

The narrow prism of foreign interference in the elections is by no means the whole story.

When Nigeria’s relatively unsophisticated electorate is pitched with a sophisticated electioneering campaign, the risks are very real that voters are being unwittingly manipulated into making what they believe is a well-informed choice.

As a country with a very high population of low-information and transactional voters for whom there are very weak bonds between the governing and the governed, the nation is ripe for unethical exploitation.

Reflecting on the 2015 campaign, it is now clear that issues like the candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s certificate scandal were carefully constructed and developed narratives.

This was then pushed to an unsuspecting electorate by a network of ‘experts, media partners and social influencers’ utilising Whatsapp and other social media platforms allied with more traditional media.

Nigerians are all witnesses to the hardening of positions by citizens in the country and this portends grave danger for all.

Insecurity and fear of the future have permeated every thread of the national fabric and is making it ever more difficult to find common ground or even to agree to disagree.

This new and insidious influence of the Cambridge Analyticas of the world is an unwelcome addition to our fragile political ecosystem.

Too many of Nigerian politicians are unscrupulous enough and the last thing they should be obliged is ‘expert’ advice on how to further divide the nation.

However, Nigeria needs to introduce digital education into the primary and secondary school curriculum. Responsible use and appreciation of information in the digital age is just as important as learning how to read and write.

How people acquire, process and disseminate information has changed and the way Nigeria educates the young and old must keep pace.

It must be recognized that whilst it is easier to manipulate low-information voters, the short-term political gain is insignificant compared to the long-term damage to national psyche.


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