Why Cambridge Analytica was eager to play in the world’s largest democracy

Data is the new currency.
Data is the new currency.
Image: Reuters/Pedro Nunes
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The world’s largest democracy is no stranger to Cambridge Analytica (CA), the London-based company in the eye of a storm for allegedly mining the personal data of nearly 50 million Facebook users without their consent.

In 2010, CA undertook an “in-depth electorate analysis” for the Bihar assembly election, according to the company’s website. The contract included identifying swing voters for each of the parties and measuring their level of electoral apathy, among other things. “Our client achieved a landslide victory, with over 90% of the total seats targeted by CA being won,” the website says.

The alliance led by Janata Dal United (JDU) leader Nitish Kumar had won with a landslide four-fifth majority in the 2010 Bihar elections, making it one of the biggest victories in the state’s history.

While CA itself was founded in 2013, the Bihar contract was undertaken by its parent, the Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) Group, news website The Wire reported today (March 20). SCL operates in India through a local partner, Ovlene Business Intelligence (OBI), owned by Amrish Tyagi, the son of senior JDU leader KC Tyagi.

Companies like CA use predictive analytics and behavioral sciences to draw trends based on user data, which can go a long way in influencing voters. CA worked with presidential candidate Donald Trump during the last US elections. “Analysing millions of data points, we consistently identified the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about. We then sent targeted messages to them at key times in order to move them to action,” the company’s website says about the US polls.

In fact, Tyagi himself was part of an elite team put together for Trump’s campaign. “My role was to figure (out) the concerns of the Indian-American population,” Tyagi told The Economic Times newspaper in November 2017.

While they were wary of Trump’s protectionist stance, Tyagi said, his research found that Indian-Americans were ideologically closer to the Republican candidate. “We suggested that he stop targeting Indian jobs. As the elections progressed we saw Trump praising Indians for their contributions and intelligence,” he said.

During the 2014 Indian general elections, CA is understood to have reached out to the two leading national political parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though nothing worked out, sources told Quartz. For the 2019 polls, too, CA was in talks with both, Hindustan Times newspaper has reported, quoting sources.

India, with one of the world’s youngest electorates, is a fertile ground for firms like CA. In the 2014 polls, social media emerged as a vital campaigning tool. So much so that a large number of candidates listed their Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts in their poll affidavits. And before the rise of the fake news phenomenon in the US during the last election cycle, these platforms had also been instrumental in spreading spurious information to influence Indian voters.

“It’s all down to how you filter and analyse data. You have to hit people individually. Data is indeed the new currency…Whether you are a political party or commercial company, personalisation is important: the message must feel like it was created for an individual,” Tyagi said in The Economic Times interview.

When 133 million young Indians cast their vote for the first time in the 2019 polls, these tools will come handy once again.