In her opening remarks at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein impressed upon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg the importance of preventing “foreign actors” from interfering in U.S. elections.
Throughout the hearings on both Monday and Tuesday, we were reminded again and again that for members of Congress and the U.S. media, the threat of Russian interference in American elections is the story. After all, it could indeed be the watershed event that sets Congress on a path to regulating social media companies.
But as Zuckerberg himself acknowledged, the problem at hand is not unique to the U.S. With Facebook boasting 2.2 billion active users in nearly every country, the problem is incredibly global and thus much harder to solve than policymakers may realize. While their priorities naturally lie in the U.S., their actions will have consequences for the entire world.
In all five of the countries with the largest populations of Facebook users—India, the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico—there is compelling evidence that people and companies are either buying or exploiting Facebook’s vast data troves and easy-to-use advertising and information-sharing services in an effort to influence election outcomes. While foreign actors may be at the root of some of these cases, in others, all signs indicate that national political parties are using these strategies against one another—there is no foreign actor to blame.
In Brazil and Indonesia, authorities are launching investigations into the unlawful use of Facebook users’ personal data by Cambridge Analytica. In India and Mexico, local media have shown how Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, have contracts in data mining, analysis, and strategy for local and national political campaigns in major upcoming elections. These findings have raised more questions than answers.
In Mexico, Cambridge Analytica appears to be under contract to aid the campaigns of gubernatorial candidates in seven of the 31 states where elections will take place this July, including the federal district, home to Mexico City. Bloomberg reported that as part of the consulting firm’s strategy, Cambridge Analytica partnered with local mobile app Pig.gi to offer Mexican Facebook users free internet access in exchange for taking surveys and watching advertisements related to the upcoming elections. This strategy appears strikingly similar to the now-infamous personality quiz that helped fuel Cambridge Analytica’s work in the U.S.
Apart from this, there is still relatively little information about what the company is or isn’t doing in Mexico. What we do know is that public corruption and drug-related violence in Mexico are at record-high levels and that these elections—in which a total of 3,000 seats are being contested at local, state, and federal levels, including the presidency—could bring about a sea of change in Mexico’s political power structure. The stakes are incredibly high.
In India, it is clear that SCL Group has a presence in the country, but beyond that, there is even less concrete information about what they may or may not be doing there.
Ovleno Business Intelligence (a local offshoot of SCL Group) boasted on its website of having worked on behalf of the country’s two major political parties—until the Indian government suspended the website in late March.
A former employee of the company told NDTV that SCL Group developed user surveys in an effort to gather data (and potentially influence user opinion against the Indian National Congress) but that the surveys were never deployed. He said this effort was abandoned after the suspension of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who was caught on camera bragging of the company’s ability to bribe politicians. (He has since been suspended from the company, though he remains CEO.) Right now, little more information about the situation has been released publicly. But the abrupt disappearance of Ovleno’s website suggests that there may be more happening behind the scenes.
One other example can be found in Kenya, where during the 2013 election campaign Cambridge Analytica conducted 47,000 on-the-ground surveys for Uhuru Kenyatta and the National Alliance, the forerunner to the incumbent Jubilee Party. According to the consulting firm’s own website, the data collected allowed them 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).”
In a report for Global Voices (the organization I work for), Kenyan blogger Njeri Wangari Wanjohi wrote, “This begs the question of what type of strategy the company might have proposed (as stated in their materials) that would be based on the electorate’s fears of tribal violence.” She then pointed to the very real threat of ethnic violence in Kenya, recalling the 2007 general election, when tribal clashes led to 1,500 deaths and left more than 600,000 people homeless.
Everything we know from Kenya and the U.S.—and don’t know about the company’s activities in Mexico and India—suggests that Cambridge Analytica and companies like it may be having a profound impact on the integrity of information about political candidates and elections worldwide, and that it may even be using data analysis to pit voters against one another on the basis of ethnic or other cultural divisions.
U.S. leaders have spent many decades evangelizing about democratic institutions and free and fair elections around the world, at least in countries where these things serve the best interests of the U.S. In theory, they should be deeply disturbed by these revelations.
Because Facebook is incorporated in the U.S., it is primarily beholden to U.S. law. This means that the U.S. government has more power over this hyperglobal company than any other institution of power on Earth. If U.S. leaders truly care about promoting and protecting democracy around the world, they are now facing a historic opportunity to practice what they’ve preached for so long.