Three quotes from a BBC Channel 4 News story on the British data firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) have left old certainties shaken and stirred. One: “Put information into the bloodstream, into the internet, and watch it grow.” Two: “There’s no point fighting an election campaign on facts because actually, it’s all about emotion.” And three: “It has to happen without anyone thinking: that’s propaganda.”
These statements were made by CA officials in the course of a sting operation conducted by a journalist identified as “Ranjan”, who claimed to represent Sri Lankan political interests. Not a very urgent matter, since elections are due in 2020, but credible otherwise, since there is a huge differential in the social media presence of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. A jiggery-pokery consultant like CA could even the odds. It was enough to get chief data officer Alex Tayler and Mark Turnbull, director of the political division of CA, to a Belgravia hotel to make startling revelations about its modus operandi.
We must clarify that The Indian Express does not itself conduct sting operations, out of the reasonable conviction that they undermine the relationship of trust between journalists and their sources. A sting might pull in one special story, but scare off sources who deliver the goods for routine reporting. And sometimes a sting does nothing at all, except to entertain. India’s first sting operation, in which Tehelka showed Bangaru Laxman of the BJP accepting a wad of notes for a fictitious defence deal, did only that, putting a face to an old story.
But Channel 4 News’ three-part story about CA, the British data analytics firm which has traded in the “hopes and fears” of people, has gone beyond the print story in The Observer, which preceded it. Without those shocking quotes, the story could have remained a game of ping pong between the charges of the whistleblower Christopher Wylie, and Cambridge Analytica. Now, it is about sovereignty, democracy and the media — because social media is becoming a significant distributor of content.
CA has been involved in elections in Nigeria, Kenya, Argentina, the Czech Republic and India, and appears to have fiddled with the Kenya poll, at least. But none of this may have come to light were it not for its involvement in swinging the presidential election of the most powerful democracy, which brought Donald Trump to office and split America down the middle. Incidentally, the BBC is being criticised for downplaying the role of CA in the Brexit debate.
In the past, the world’s media have responded rather admiringly to the digitisation of political campaigning, as it moved from the streets to screens. This has been visible during the campaigns of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and of Narendra Modi. It turns out that CA was involved in the campaigns of the last two. Its effect is clear in the election of Trump, where the data of 50 million Facebook users is known to have been harvested by Cambridge lecturer Aleksandr Kogan, through an innocuous app. The effect on the last Indian general election is contested.
Whether wilfully or witlessly, initial responses to the scandal from third parties has missed the point. Facebook tried to palm off the blame to users — they should have read the terms of service of Kogan’s app before they signed on. But the real point is that Facebook exposed its users to risk, found out, and did not tell them. Also, people rarely get bright ideas in isolation, and others could have used Kogan’s method to harvest much more data. This could be a long-breaking story.
In India, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pointlessly rattled the IT Act at Mark Zuckerberg, which only made for some entertaining television. And the BJP and the Congress traded charges about engaging CA’s Indian arm. They needn’t have squabbled, because the age of issuing denials is over. All it took for NDTV and other organisations to get to the truth was to look up the LinkedIn page of the director of Ovleno Business Intelligence, which claims to have managed four elections successfully for the BJP, and “helped achieve mission 272”. The company has denied the use of underhand means.
But in the course of the sting, CA officials boast of writing the manifesto and even the speeches of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, and smearing his rival Raila Odinga. A viral video showing a future Kenya, poor, hungry and riven by conflict, was a major feature of the 2017 election.
Such apocalyptic messaging has become common in Indian politics. It exploits irrational but popular anxieties, just like CA’s communications, and sways hearts and minds. It shares electronic distribution channels with news. It is attributed to troll farms, but now, perhaps we should look for external influences, too. As Channel 4 News points out, such messaging is “tapping into your hopes and fears for the biggest political yield”.