In May 2015, about one year before the Philippines went to the polls that brought Rodrigo Duterte to power, Alexander Nix showed up at Manila’s National Press Club.
The now-suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica (CA)—the British political consultancy that surreptitiously harvested the data of at least 87 million Facebook users—declared that the future of election campaigns were going to be about data and technology.
“Instead of relying heavily on political surveys, campaign strategists must use those data to influence the behavior of the person,” Nix said, according to The Manila Times newspaper.
On April 05, Facebook admitted some 1.2 million users in Philippines had their data improperly accessed by CA. That’s the highest number after the US, where the company used information from over 70 million users to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign strategically target voters.
But CA’s footprint in the Philippines—one of Facebook’s most active markets—is at least five years old.
Documents issued around 2013 obtained by Quartz list out a number of case studies illustrating how SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s predecessor, helped politicians around the world gauge and increase their influence.
A short blurb on the Philippines reads:
Facing national elections, the incumbent client was perceived as kind and honourable – qualities his campaign team thought were election-winning. By contrast, SCL’s research showed that many groups within the electorate were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as ‘tough’ and ‘decisive’. Using the cross-cutting issue of crime, SCL rebranded the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action.
Unlike descriptions of its work in Indonesia and Thailand, SCL’s brief case study for the Philippines mentions no names or dates. That makes it difficult to pinpoint the specific politician—the “incumbent client”—SCL claims to have helped.
Since the documents were published around 2013, it is unlikely the client was Duterte. While the Filipino president made crime a key part of his campaign, he did not establish himself as a candidate for any national election until late 2015, when he launched his presidential campaign. Until 2016, he was the mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, and his reputation for being tough on crime—perhaps too tough—was well cemented by the time of his presidential run.
Beyond that, experts on Filipino politics are undecided as to which politician (or politicians) SCL might have helped—or even which election—judging solely from the description. Prior to the 2016 presidential elections, the Philippines held mid-term elections in 2013, and a presidential election in 2010 that brought Benigno Aquino III to power.
Two analysts Quartz reached out to suggested that the client could be Mar Roxas, a pedigreed Filipino politician who ran for president in 2010 before withdrawing and running for vice president. Ultimately, he was appointed as a cabinet secretary under former president Aquino in 2011. Roxas again ran for president in 2016 but lost.
One analyst, requesting anonymity, said that Roxas “started to project himself as a decisive ‘man of action’ with the help of President Aquino starting in mid-2013.” This includes his role in the handling of the armed conflict in Zamboanga City in September 2013, the earthquake that hit Bohol in October 2013, and the relief and rehabilitation work in the aftermath of the supertyphoon Haiyan in November 2013.
It’s possible that Roxas worked with SCL around that time in anticipation of his 2016 run, according to another analyst. “They tried to rebrand him [Roxas], but it didn’t work,” the analyst said, also requesting anonymity. “Of the presidential candidates in 2016, he would best fit the mold. And he was also known to like data and info in driving his campaign.”
Nico Ravanilla, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is skeptical that Roxas fits the description. “Mar Roxas ran on a platform of ‘Mr. Palengke’ (Mr. Market, literally), so he doesn’t fit the profile of someone who rebranded his campaign from ‘kind and honorable’ to someone who is a ‘strong, no-nonsense man of action.'”
Alan Peter Cayetano, who now serves as the secretary of foreign affairs under Duterte, also came up as a potential fit. “If we examined his campaign platform in 2013, he might be construed as someone who is a strong, no-nonsense man of action,” said Ravanilla.
Alan Cayetano was known to want to reach out to foreign consultants,” another analyst said. “He was proud of that.”
But Cayetano did not run on a strong anti-crime platform until he teamed up with Duterte, Ravanilla added.
Ravanilla suggested that senator Richard Gordon also matches the description outlined in the SCL documents. Active in politics since the 1980s as mayor of Olongapo City, in the north, Gordon ended his first stint in the senate in 2010 to make a presidential bid that failed. Later, he campaigned for a return to senate in the 2013 mid-term elections, calling himself “Action Gordon” in some ads (link to video).
But, according to a different analyst, Gordon may not have had the means to engage SCL’s services. “It would be too expensive for any candidate, particularly for a presidential candidate, to get the services of a foreign consultant unless the candidate has serious chances of winning and has a deep pocket for campaign expenses,” the analyst explained.
The offices of Cayetano, Gordon, and Cambridge Analytica, did not reply to Quartz’s requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Roxas denied that SCL or CA were involved in his 2016 election campaign. “SCL/Cambridge Analytica were not retained nor did they provide any services for the Roxas campaign,” the spokesperson said.
There is another possibility: that SCL exaggerated or misrepresented its actual impact in the Philippines.
Well before the Facebook scandal, the company had a reputation for overstating its talents. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal and the Observer each published pieces illustrating SCL’s operations in Indonesia supporting president Abdurrahman Wahid. They each depicted the company’s local offices as a spy’s lair, full of computers and flat-screen monitors—while the firm delivered few meaningful results, beyond assuaging an unpopular regime’s insecurities. “It was just like a movie set to impress the clients, to calm down the family,” the Observer reported one Indonesian who visited the office saying. “They are really desperate.”
Update, April 10: This article was updated with comment from a spokesperson for Mar Roxas.