The modern era’s ever-changing technical advancements have often been marketed as an
asset to democracy, depicted as the key to virtualizing the power of the masses. But what
happens when technology begins to overshadow the people, silencing the body which is truly meant to govern the republic?
While myriad Americans watched the results of the 2016 United States’ election with a vast array of emotions, the nation of Kenya experienced similar variations of shock, awe, and excitement as Uhuru Kenyatta claimed victory of the country’s second general election in three months. Today, both nations are grappling with the reverberating effects of elections, which were not as “free and fair” as liberal democracy’s politics are poised to be. Kenya and the U.S. were at the mercy of an illusive third party, the now infamous Cambridge Analytica Political Global.
In 2014, the Global Science Research company and cofounder Aleksandr Kogan began
harvesting consumer data from users of the app ”thisisyourdigitallife.” The collection and data mining disseminated beyond the initial downloaders of the app, tapping into Facebook friends and eventually amassing over 50 million Facebook profiles in one pervasive sweep.
From this, an election assistance tool was curated by Kogan to use collected information to influence voter choice; a tool which was developed and sold to Cambridge Analytica to format “psychographic” profiles for voters across the globe. Without the eventual whistleblowing of then Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, the world may have ceased to understand the connection between the increase of tailored election advertising and the presently polarized, and divisive political landscape online.
Although the nature of election manipulation is still under question in the United States, it has become clear the implications of Kogan and Cambridge Analytica’s data mining are far more sinister and far reaching than initially expected.
A recent account from Channel 4 News in the U.K. found Cambridge Analytica responsible for much more than the harvesting of data. In fact, it is alleged that their corporation played a very dominant and potentially illegal role in the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election campaigns long before 2017. The initial vote, which took place in August 2017, pitted incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta against his long-standing rival, Raila Odinga.
Due to “procedural irregularities” the president elections were overruled and set for a revote in October. In the end, Kenyatta gained 98% of the vote, though the election featured a record low voter turnout which amounted to barely 40%; a number many attributed to the rampant misinformation and propaganda campaigns that shaped the entire Kenyan electoral experience. The Electoral Commission Chairman, Wafula Chebukati, openly acknowledged the lack of political efficacy in Kenya noting, “every five years we seem to facing the same challenges. It is important we ask ourselves some hard questions.”
Yet, recent accounts tell a different story. Leaked video of Cambridge Analytica MD Mark Turnbull depicts the following: Cambridge Analytica boasts of efforts to “rebrand the entire party twice, write their manifesto, do two rounds of 50,000 (participant) surveys. Then we’d just write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing — so just about every element of his campaign.” This flippant admission is yet another blow to the people of Kenya, especially given the initial election results sparked widespread violence and brutality.
The nature of this Orwellian tale of global election tampering and political sabotage will have lasting effects on Kenya and the international community as a whole. As academics, activists, and litigators condemn the errors of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, is it time to begin a broader dialogue on the negative effects of digitized democracy? While universal ethics, privacy laws, and regulations are in place to seemingly safeguard against online invasions of this nature, there is little to no discussion of the on-the-ground impacts of this massive breach of information.
In the wake of Kenyatta’s victory, Human Rights Watch accounted for nearly 100 injuries and 25 lives lost, not as a result of violent protesting, but as result of law enforcement responses to the public response. According to Otsieno Namwaya, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The brutal crackdown on protesters and residents in the western counties, part of a pattern of violence and repression in opposition strongholds, undermined the national elections.”
Political consulting and data mining amidst democracy, which appears seemingly progressive and proactive, is merely another tool to manipulate political culture and public opinion.
This is yet another instance in which the underlying imperialism of the tech sector has seeped through, showing how simple it is for the West to infiltrate the realms of international entities from the comfort of office spaces coasts away. Actions taken by Cambridge Analytica have also set a precedent within Kenya, signaling to President Kenyatta that lawlessness goes unpunished and no action taken to “better” democracy is too far.
Just a few weeks ago, Kenyatta signed into law a new action, which on the surface imposes fines and jail terms for hacking, computer fraud, forgery of data, cyber-espionage and pornography, but realistically serves as a legal means to curb freedoms to the press and free speech. This all comes after eight prominent contributors of Kenya’s largest media group, the Nation Media Group, quit over strict government oversight and a loss of media freedom at its outlets.
The global reach of Kogan’s “thisisyourdigitallife” initiative has proven the digital age is a new frontier, which again begs countries to consider power—who gives it and who takes it away. As the marginalized and disenfranchised continue to be disproportionately affected by the very technology that has the means to fully equalize the spread of information and protect all citizen rights, several key legal and moral questions must be raised to hold government leaders and technological agents accountable.
As hearings and court cases regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica continue, the public must remember these agents were not only curators of illiberal politicking and undemocratic election making, but their companies have since become accomplices in the authoritarianization of the nation of Kenya… and potentially the United States.
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