Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta recently signed into law the Data Protection Bill. Passed after several years of debate and delay, the new law places restrictions on the collection and use of digital data by governments and private corporations. The restrictions are similar to those included in a new data protection regulation passed by Nigeria this year.
These protection laws are welcome advancements in the light of investigations that revealed that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had worked on presidential campaigns in both countries.
It’s been widely known for some time that the firm helped elect Donald Trump in the US and worked on the Brexit referendum in the UK. But in March 2018 a number of startling exposés were published by The Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4 showing the firm’s dubious campaign practices in Nigeria and Kenya. An ongoing leak of tens of thousands of internal documents is set to show in great detail Cambridge Analytica’s work in 68 countries around the world.
The legal responses to the revelations suggest a growing awareness that social media and personal data are being harnessed by outside actors to influence elections around the world.
In a recent article we analysed press coverage of Cambridge Analytica in Nigeria and Kenya. We wanted to see if local coverage reflected international media coverage of the scandal. To do this we focused on three key themes: data privacy and protection, unethical political campaigning on social media, and foreign involvement in African elections.
We found that most newspaper articles focused on data privacy and social media campaigning. The Nigerian and Kenyan 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.
Cambridge Analytica in Africa
It is easy to overstate the impact of Cambridge Analytica in Nigeria and Kenya. So let’s review what the March 2018 exposés revealed.
According to a detailed report, Cambridge Analytica was hired by a wealthy Nigerian to support the 2015 reelection campaign of then-president Goodluck Jonathan. During the campaign, the firm worked with the Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube to acquire hacked medical and financial information about Jonathan’s opponent Muhammadu Buhari.
Cambridge Analytica also promoted a graphic anti-Buhari video. It suggested Buhari would support the terrorist group Boko Haram and end women’s rights.
Jonathan eventually lost the 2015 election to Buhari. Earlier this year Buhari was reelected to a second term.
In Kenya, the firm worked on both Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 presidential campaign and his 2017 reelection campaign. To date, it is unclear exactly what it did during either campaign. One bit of evidence emerged in an undercover video of executive Mark Turnbull in which he made a number of claims. These included claims that the firm had rebranded Kenyatta’s party twice, had written their manifesto and had done two rounds of 50,000 surveys.
Covering Cambridge Analytica
To gather articles for our study, we searched the archives of two Nigerian newspapers — Punch and Vanguard — and two Kenyan newspapers — Daily Nation and East African Standard. We looked for mentions of Cambridge Analytica in relation to Nigeria or Kenya.
We found 31 articles in the Nigerian newspapers and 74 articles in the Kenyan newspapers published prior to December 2018.
All 31 articles in Nigerian newspapers were published after March 2018. In the case of Kenya, 17 of the 74 articles were published prior to this. Cambridge Analytica was little known at the time of the 2015 elections in Nigeria. But the firm had garnered significant public attention in 2016 because of its connection to Trump and Brexit. As a result the Kenyan media was paying attention when the firm joined the Kenyatta campaign in 2017.
But none of the articles we examined provided any further details on specific activities by Cambridge Analytica. They simply repeated what had already been reported in the international media.
Nigerian newspapers quickly framed the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a partisan issue between two competing political parties.
Kenyan newspaper coverage, on the other hand, was more comprehensive in quantity and quality. For one, the Kenyan press was covering Cambridge Analytica prior to March 2018; the first story appeared in May 2017.
Because Cambridge Analytica had become known for its work with Trump and Brexit, Kenyan journalists and writers were discussing the implications of the firm working in their country early on. They cautioned readers that the firm might be involved in targeting sensational messages and misinformation on social media. They also considered the ramifications of foreign actors interfering in local political campaigns.
After the March 2018 revelations, Kenyan newspapers responded with more news and opinion pieces. These wrestled with the implications for data privacy, political campaigning on social media, and Kenya’s democratic institutions. For example, a column asked plainly whether the firm undermined democracy and made a mockery of elections by manipulating people’s emotions. The column also questioned whether the firm deepened ethnic division in society.
Recently, the Kenyan writer, political analyst and activist Nanjala Nyabola asked whether Africa was entering a new era of digital colonialism. By this she means a form of exploitation in which foreign actors use African nations for their own benefit without regard for the safety of citizens and the stability of institutions.
In the context of Cambridge Analytica’s work in Nigeria and Kenya, the answer may be yes. It’s important that African countries update their data privacy and protection laws. But as the ongoing document leak demonstrates, the Cambridge Analytic scandal runs deeper than access to Facebook data.
Brian Ekdale, Associate Professor of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Iowa and Melissa Tully, Associate Professor Director of Undergraduate Studies School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa