More than 100 election campaigns in over 30 countries spanning five continents.
That’s the astounding, self-proclaimed track record of SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a once little-known British political consulting firm that now finds itself in the eye of a storm roiling the US, UK, and Facebook. Earlier this month, it was revealed that CA, which was hired by Donald Trump’s campaign to build targeted ads during the 2016 US election, harvested data from 50 million Facebook users without their consent. CA’s role in the closely fought Brexit referendum in the UK is also under scrutiny.
So far, the focus has been on CA’s impact in the US and UK, but SCL Elections claims to have a far larger footprint. According to company documents issued around 2013, which were reviewed by Quartz, SCL has worked in 32 countries across Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Different services were provided in each country, depending on client requirements.
In Kenya, for instance, SCL rolled out a political research project covering 47,000 respondents, part of an effort to understand the needs and fears of the electorate. “SCL subsequently advised the client (one of Kenya’s two principal parties) on communications, branding and policy,” the document states, possibly referring to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is reported to have used (paywall) the firm’s services in 2013 and 2017.
A few years earlier, after surveying voters ahead of the 2011 elections in the Colombian capital of Bogota, SCL discouraged a client from touting his own honesty and trustworthiness. ”SCL therefore recommended that its client not personally address the issue of character and instead enlist others to do so whilst also leveraging his track record,” the document describes.
By SCL’s telling, its clients—who were typically charged between $200,000 and $2 million, according to The New Yorker (paywall)—often assiduously implemented the company’s recommendations. In the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and Nevis, for instance, SCL says it was able to delay elections and stage a “national pride” campaign that helped its client hold on to power in the late 2000s:
The goal of the campaign was to remind the population that despite tough times the country was working well and improving. The ‘It’s Working’ campaign covered tourism, health, education, sport and the economy and became so popular that it was embraced across the political divide.
On its website, CA says it managed the St. Kitts and Nevis Labour Party’s general election campaign in 2010, leading to the unprecedented fourth-term victory of prime minister Denzil Douglas.
On March 23, CA’s acting CEO, Alexander Tayler, said that the company’s board had launched an investigation into SCL Elections’ past practices. “As anyone who is familiar with our staff and work can testify, we in no way resemble the politically-motivated and unethical company that some have sought to portray,” Tayler said in a press release.
Quartz has reached out to SCL Elections for comment, and will update this story if they respond.
SCL Elections, according to the document, traces its origin to “a group of renowned academics and a consortium of international investors [who] collaborated to establish the first academic think-tank specialising in the Science of Communication.” This was christened the Behavioural Dynamics Institute.
Led by Nigel Oakes, a former film producer and advertising executive, this group included two psychologists, Adrian Furnham and Barrie Gunter, who met regularly between 1989 and 1993, The New Yorker (paywall) reported. Eventually, Oakes formed SCL Elections, which pitched itself as “experts in measurable behavioural change”:
Unlike commercial PR agencies and communications firms, we use advanced scientific research and social analysis techniques, adapted for civilian use from military applications, to better understand behaviour within electorates. Our unique, measurable and effects-based methodology, developed by the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, enables us to understand how people think and identify what it would take to change their mindsets and associated voting patterns.
In 2013, SCL Elections spawned Cambridge Analytica, the latter’s acting CEO told the BBC. CA then went on to work on a number of high-profile campaigns in the US, including Trump’s run in 2016.