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After Trump, “big data” firm Cambridge Analytica is now working in Kenya

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A firm that worked for Donald Trump and which once claimed ties to a pro-Brexit campaign group is now reportedly working for Kenya’s incumbent president.

Cambridge Analytica’s mission statement is simple. On its website, the firm says it “uses data to change audience behaviour.” Most notably, the company was hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has been given some credit for Trump’s electoral success.

The company purchases and compiles demographic data on voters. On its website, Cambridge Analytica claims to possess up to 5,000 data points on more than 230 million Americans. When combined with on-the-ground surveys, Cambridge Analytica can use this vast information bank to target key messages to relevant voters.

Now, Cambridge Analytica is working in Kenya, helping in the effort to re-elect President Uhuru Kenyatta.

On 10 May, The Star newspaper in Kenya reported that Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party had hired the firm, and a month later, the same newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica was working from the seventh floor of the party’s headquarters in Nairobi.

Cambridge Analytica refused to comment on those reports to BBC Trending, but the global privacy-protection charity Privacy International suggests that the company is being paid $6 million for its work in the country.

Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013, when the company worked for Kenyatta and The National Alliance – the forerunner of the Jubilee Party. During that year’s campaign, the company correlated online data with 47,000 on-the-ground surveys. According to the Cambridge Analytica website, this allowed the company to create a profile of the Kenyan electorate and come up with a campaign strategy “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).” Kenyatta won the 2013 election.

Kenyans are among the most active social media users in Africa. The number of mobile phone users in the country shot up from 8 million in 2007 to 30 million in 2013, and 88% of the population can now access the internet through their phones.

Having served as Minister of Information and Communication from 2005 to 2013, Bitange Ndemo was one of the driving forces behind Kenya’s technological expansion. He told BBC Trending that social media plays a “key role” in the country’s political campaigns.

“It provides a fast way of responding to your opponent’s propaganda,” he said. “Plus, it is perhaps the only medium that can reach most young people.”

Ethnic turmoil

At the same time, Kenya’s recent political history has been marred by violence. This reached a peak after the 2007 general election, when a contested result caused ethnic divisions to erupt – 1,100 people were killed in the ensuing conflict, while 650,000 were displaced.

“Kenya is very tricky political terrain,” says Paul Goldsmith, an American researcher and writer who’s lived in Kenya for 40 years. “Cambridge Analytica might have access to surveys and other data, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into useful insights. There’s always something unpredictable during elections here. There’s always a curveball.”

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