Cambridge Analytica quietly worked on fake news-fueled Kenyan election

Kenyatta was named the winner following a mysterious death and the deportation of another foreign political firm, and amid waves of disinformation and violence.

Cambridge Analytica quietly worked on fake news-fueled Kenyan election
[Photo: Flickr user MEAACT Photo, Stuart Price]

As supporters of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta proclaimed victory in Kenya’s election on Tuesday, opposition leader Raila Odinga called the results “a complete fraud,” claiming the voting system had been hacked to manipulate the outcome.


To enter the database, according to Odinga, a hacker used the password of an election technology official, Chris Msando, who was found mysteriously tortured and murdered last week. The hacker, Odinga claimed, “took control of the entire network” and altered the results. He did not identify the hacker or reveal his source, and an 8-page description of the hacking and a 50-page document posted on his Facebook page did not offer conclusive evidence to back up that claim.

Amid concerns about the rampant spread of “fake news”—and fearful memories of scores of deaths during the 2007 election—it was another seismic development in a fraught election. Last weekend, staffers at Aristotle, an American data firm working for the opposition party, were deported from the country after what a spokesperson described as an aggressive detention.

The opposition also pointed to what it said was negative campaigning by Cambridge Analytica, the Anglo-American data firm that worked for Donald Trump, which the Kenyatta campaign paid a reported $6 million for polling and data analytics. The firm, which was co-founded by Trump adviser Steve Bannon and billionaire donor Robert Mercer, previously worked for Kenyatta in 2013.


At a news conference, Odinga, a 72-year-old former political prisoner and four-time presidential candidate, urged his supporters to remain calm, even as he told them not to accept the election commission’s results that showed that with 97% of stations reporting, Kenyatta was leading with 54.32% of the votes to Odinga’s 44.8%.

The commission did not dismiss the hacking allegation outright, and said the results would not be final for days.

In Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums and site of deadly violence during the 2007 elections, Odinga supporters took to the streets Wednesday morning, and two people were shot and killed by police. Sporadic, mostly small demonstrations popped up in parts of western Kenya, and police fired tear gas to break up at least one protest in Kisumu.


The Kenya Human Rights Commission denounced the “unverifiable results” which could “create serious political instability” if left unaddressed. Among those calling for a peaceful election were former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of a number of foreign election observers, and Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan. President Trump and the U.S. State Department have yet to comment on the vote.

A tally by the opposition party, NASA, showed Odinga with almost a million more votes than Kenyatta, but a document containing those results included no substantiating evidence. Odinga’s running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, told supporters, “There may come a time when we need to call you into action.”


In response to the hacking claims, electoral commission Chairman Wafula Chebukati said, “we have had concerns raised and we cannot as a commission ignore those concerns. We want to look at the original forms, verify, and at the end of the day do an audit and those [hacking] questions will be answered.”

After being signed by agents from all parties, the polling forms—all 41,000 of them—are scanned and sent to the election board for posting online, a measure designed to combat rigging. “Results transmitted on any other basis have no basis in law,” Salim Lone, Raila Odinga’s spokesman, said in a statement.

He said it was a “bizarre phenomenon” that Uhuru lead stayed a consistent 11% ahead of Raila throughout Wednesday. “It never went up to 12 or 13 percent or down to 9 or 10 percent. In the hacking that was described in detail in our earlier statement, we pointed out that an algorithm was introduced, which basically amounted to a formula creating a fixed gap in favor of Uhuru Kenyatta,” added Lone.


Officials with the election commission said they had seen no preliminary evidence of hacking of election databases, but noted they had up to a week to declare final results.

Aside from the hacking claims, concerns emerged earlier this week that poor 3G networking would hobble efforts to transmit voter data, reportedly in areas that are opposition strongholds. But in an election flooded by fake news, it was hard to tell which reports were accurate.

“A Bit Dramatic For A Visa Conflict”

The election has also been marred by the controversy over the role of two U.S. data firms, and the security of election data in a country with poor privacy laws and a history of ethnic conflict.


Last weekend, a group of unidentified men in black hoodies arrived at the Nairobi apartment of John Aristotle Phillips, the American founder and CEO of data firm Aristotle, Inc., and detained him and Canadian Andreas Katsouris, the company’s senior vice-president, on charges they had violated visa laws.

The dozen or so armed men who detained them also stuffed Phillips in the back of a hatchback, drove him around for hours, and took their laptops and phones for a period of time, the company claims. One asked Phillips for his computer password, but he did not reveal it, and the company was able to protect all relevant data, according to Brandi Travis, a spokesperson for Aristotle. With the assistance of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the devices were returned before the two men left the country.

Travis said the timing of the deportation, so close to the election, was suspicious, given that the government knew they had been working on the campaign for nearly two months. “If it was a visa issue, 20 something men in hoodies was a bit dramatic for a visa conflict,” she says. The executives had been in the process of converting their tourist visas into another type of visa.

Andreas Katsouris, left, a senior vice president and John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm Aristotle, Inc

“They drove them around for several hours before taking them to individual holding cells. They switched cars. It was a dramatic thing. That wouldn’t happen for a visa discrepancy.”

Kenyan Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka told the LA Times that the decision to deport them was made by Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i, but offered no explanation for Phillips’ rough seizure. “I don’t have the details as to whether they were taken straight to the airport or whether they were delayed. There could have been a traffic jam or something,” he said.

Aristotle was one of a handful of foreign entities working on polling analytics and data analytics during the campaigns: Cambridge Analytica, the widely discussed data firm that worked for the Trump campaign, was hired earlier this year to work on Kenyatta’s campaign.


“It’s pretty common for American groups to get involved in [Kenyan] elections anyway,” said Travis. She wouldn’t comment on Cambridge Analytica’s work, and wouldn’t identify other consultants working on Odinga’s campaign, but said Aristotle had come “to further democracy.”

“It’s a project of passion for everyone in our company,” she added. “We have people from every type of political background—the RNC, DNC, people who have worked on international elections, people from other countries. We all come together around that.”

Data Work Is “Cause For Further Scrutiny”

Cambridge Analytica began its political work in Kenya in 2013. That’s the same year it was launched, with funding from hedge fund CEO and conservative donor Robert Mercer. (Steve Bannon, former CEO of Breitbart News and now White House chief strategist, sat on Cambridge Analytica’s board of directors until recently; he divested his holdings in the company in April.) With research and expertise from its parent company, U.K.-based political consultants SCL Group, Cambridge worked for Kenyatta and The National Alliance, the forerunner of the Jubilee Party, correlating online data with 47,000 on-the-ground surveys.


According to its website, the firm created a profile of the Kenyan electorate and came up with a campaign strategy “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).” Kenyatta won.

Kenya’s The Star newspaper reported that Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party had hired the firm in May, and that Cambridge Analytica was working from the seventh floor of the party’s headquarters in Nairobi. The company refused to comment on its work, for which, Privacy International suggests, it is being paid $6 million.

Election data analytics firms purchase and compile rafts of demographic and personality data on voters. (Cambridge claims to possess up to 5,000 data points on more than 230 million Americans, for instance.) Combined with social media and TV messaging, that data can help target powerful advertising.


Cambridge Analytica, which reports have tied to the U.K.’s pro-Brexit Leave campaign, is still working in support of Trump’s agenda, recently signed a contract with the U.S. State Dept., and is said to be seeking a big contract in Mexico ahead of next year’s presidential elections. The company’s use of personal data in the U.K. has made it the subject of an investigation by British regulators, and U.S. Congressional investigators examining Russian meddling have said they are interested in the company’s work for the Trump campaign.

In Kenya, social media are critical conduits to voters, who are among the most active users in Africa of the platforms. There are now 32 million internet users in the country, with an estimated 10 million users of the social messaging platform WhatsApp and 6 million on Facebook. About 49% of Kenyans cited social media as their main source of election news anyway, according to a recent study by research firm GeoPoll.

But the death of Msando, the deportation of the Aristotle consultants, and the work of data-hungry Cambridge Analytica for the ruling party have raised concerns about the safety of personal data after the election.


Kenya currently lacks specific data protection laws, making it unclear which agencies or companies can have access to sensitive individual data. In June, the watchdog NGO Privacy International sent Cambridge Analytica a letter asking for a response to its concerns, but a spokesperson says it has yet to receive a response. The company told the BBC that it is not compiling individualized data profiles on Kenyan voters, and that a data-harvesting program on the same scale as that conducted in the U.S. is not possible in Kenya.

“That the Kenyan president’s Jubilee party would commit a reported 6 million USD to Cambridge Analytica for a mere three-month project contract so soon to the polling date, and with such secrecy, gives cause for further scrutiny,” wrote the group’s policy officer Frederike Kaltheuner and head of research Claire Lauterbach.

Aristotle, which like Cambridge collects and analyzes data on voters and electoral patterns that can then be used to help devise strategy and messaging, had been working in Kenya for Mr. Odinga’s presidential campaign for nearly two months. Along with data and polling analysis, the company said it was helping with debate prep, polling, and digital and TV advertising; it declined to say what it was being paid for its services.


The Most Political Fake News Ever?

There are also concerns that viral rumors could ignite powder kegs of violence in a country where politics is tied up in ethnic identities.

The widespread dissatisfaction over the re-election of president Mwai Kibaki in December 2007 against contender Raila Odinga that would eventually erupt into extreme violence was expressed often in “tribal” language and targeting. At least 1,100 people were killed and thousands forced to flee their homes. The International Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence report attributes much of the violence to “voters’ perception that it was essential that the ethnic group from which they come to win the Presidency in order to ensure access to state resources,” according to a Privacy International blog post.

This election has made history as the one most impacted by the spread of fake news, according to the recent GeoPoll study. In a survey carried out in May 2017, 90% of Kenyans said they had encountered deliberately false information regarding the vote.

In recent months, reports Global Voices’ Njeri Wangari, “Twitter has been a hotbed of propaganda and hashtags both organic and sponsored by the two political parties…” Mostly spread around the two main hashtags, #ElectionsKE & #ElectionsKE2017, “the two [parties] have used bots, paid influencers, and in Jubilee’s case, big data firm Cambridge Analytica to sway the youth vote.” (One widely shared ad attacking Odinga has been viewed nearly 480,000 times on Facebook; officially unaffiliated with the Kenyatta campaign, its origins are mysterious.)

A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica told the BBC that the company is not involved in any negative advertising in Kenya, and that the company “has never advocated the exploitation of ethnic divisions in any country.” Aristotle says it is committed to promoting peaceful democracy, and that much of its work involved figuring out ways to fight fake news. “It’s a constant battle,” she says.

Violence Fears

As the campaign wore on, Aristotle’s work appeared to become more dangerous, especially after last week’s murder of Chris Msando, the head of IT for the country’s election commission.

“He was there making sure there was no fraud going on and he ended up dead,” says Travis. No arrests have been made in that case. “For their own safety” the Aristotle founder and his associate discussed returning home earlier in the week, and “John said, ‘we’re staying, we’re seeing this through to the end.'”

“They have said they will go back and do it again, and doing more campaigns like this. They have no regrets,” she says. “If the election is rigged and he doesn’t win, you keep working at it. It’s not one of those things where you give up because they try to scare you into giving up.”

She pointed to an assault last week on an opposition vote tally center in Nairobi, carried about by what was reported to be a group of 20 masked men. “That’s what they were doing at the voter tally center—intimidating them to not work on election day.

“You never know what the level of corruption is,” she says. “The ruling party is going to do whatever it has to do to disable a fair election.”

“Everything of this sort that happens in Kenya is politically motivated,” Phillips told Kenya’s The Nation. “It’s symptomatic of a political clique that’s losing its grip.”

In two previous elections, Odinga has blamed losses on vote rigging following irregularities. After tallying was halted and the incumbent president declared the winner in 2007, an outcry from Odinga’s camp and waves of ethnic violence led to 1,500 deaths and more than 600,000 left homeless. The International Criminal Court filed charges against Kenyatta and his now-deputy, William Ruto, but the cases against them collapsed as witnesses died or disappeared.

Violence has been limited so far during the 2017 election, but during primary elections earlier this year, seven people were killed as rival groups accused each other of vote rigging.

“Every time we vote in Kenya, our votes are stolen,” Akal Nicholas, a resident of Mathare and an Odinga supporter told the Washington Post after Odinga made his hacking claims. “We can’t keep allowing this to happen. We have to do something.”

Tuesday’s election was mostly peaceful and upbeat, with a huge turnout and only minor delays and technical issues reported. As residents remained indoors out of fear of violence, watching and listening to the returns, businesses were closed in some of Kenya’s major cities, including Nairobi and Kisumu.

Over 400 international election observers—including John Kerry and officials from the U.S. and the European Union—were deployed across the country to monitor voting and the tallying process. In a memo released Wednesday, the EU urged patience, security, and the avoidance of “excessive use of force.” An EU monitor told CNN that the group would present its preliminary findings about the election at a press conference on Thursday.

John Dramani Mahama, the former president of Ghana, and the head of the Commonwealth Observer Mission, told the BBC that both sides were responsible for maintaining peace. “They can take Kenya down the slippery slopes of violence like in 2007 or they can both rise to the occasion… and become one of the leading democracies in Africa.”


About the author

Alex is a contributing editor at Fast Company, the founding editor and editor at large of Motherboard at Vice, and a freelance writer and producer with a focus on the intersections of science, technology, media, politics, and culture.