SHADOW OPERATIONS

Cambridge Analytica tried to sway Nigeria’s last elections with Buhari’s hacked emails

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

New information on the operations of embattled data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica suggests it had a controversial role in Nigeria’s presidential election in 2015.

A report by The Guardian says Cambridge Analytica, hired by an unnamed Nigerian billionaire to work on the re-election campaign of then-president Goodluck Jonathan, “was paid an estimated £2 million ($2.8 million) to orchestrate a ferocious campaign” against Muhammadu Buhari, the leading opposition candidate at the time. Buhari went on to secure a historic election win in 2015. Before that however, Cambridge Analytica reportedly attempted to furtively use hacked personal emails of Buhari which were provided by Israeli hackers.

Cambridge Analytica staff working on the Nigerian elections reportedly met the Israeli hackers in the firm’s London offices after which Alexander Nix, the recently suspended Cambridge Analytica CEO, allegedly asked staff to search the hacked emails for damaging information to be used against Buhari. But, as The Guardian reports, “alarmed” staff members refused to do so believing that the data was possibly obtained illegally. For its part, SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, confirms it was hired “to provide advertising and marketing services” for the Jonathan campaign but denied receiving or using hacked information during the campaign.

In the build-up to the elections, the Jonathan campaign notably focused on social media and public messaging questioning Buhari’s educational qualifications and also, contentiously, his health status, setting off intense rumors and speculation. The hacked emails are believed to have contained or referenced Buhari’s medical records. Those rumors apparently had an element of truth as Buhari spent over 150 days on medical leave in the UK last year treating an undisclosed illness.

Elsewehere in Africa, Cambridge Analytica has confirmed working on Kenya’s elections in 2013 and 2017. In a sting operation by UK’s Channel 4 News, Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, says the company managed “every element” of president Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns. Kenya’s 2017 elections were notably characterized by fake news and attacking commentary on opposition candidates mainly through Facebook and Whatsapp.

Beyond the continent, Cambridge Analytica is facing severe accusations of illegally harvesting millions of personal profiles on Facebook with its controversial methods linked to the UK’s landmark Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election win in the US. The social network is also facing questions of its own over its data and privacy policies.

It is unclear how much of Cambridge Analytica’s work was based in Nigeria, Facebook’s largest African market, was based on profile data of local voters mined on the social network.

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