Here's how Cambridge Analytica played a dominant role in Kenya's chaotic 2017 elections

Key Points
  • The managing director of data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica was covertly filmed by U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 describing his company's sway over Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's previous two election campaigns.
  • The firm worked on "just about every element" of Kenyatta's bid to be elected, he said.
  • Fake news and misinformation impacted Kenya's 2017 elections like never before, as exposure to smartphones and social media has grown quickly in the country, a Nairobi-based data analysis firm told CNBC.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta takes the oath of office during his inauguration ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 28, 2017.
Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

The managing director of Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm at the center of a firestorm over its sway in multiple elections, was filmed describing its dominant role in Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's election campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

"We have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 (participant) surveys," Mark Turnbull, MD of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, was covertly filmed saying by U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 in a report aired this week.

"Then we'd write all the speeches and we'd stage the whole thing — so just about every element of his campaign," Turnbull added.

The U.K. headquarters of Cambridge Analytica on March 20, 2018, in London, England.
Jack Taylor | Getty Images

Cambridge Analytica is in the midst of a dispute after an undercover sting operation caught senior executives boasting about psychological manipulation, entrapment techniques and fake news campaigns. The company's CEO has been suspended and the U.K.'s Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to raid its London office.

It is alleged to have used data gathered from Facebook users via a third party app to influence votes, including in the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum, both in 2016. Cambridge Analytica has said that it was "committed to being responsible, fair and secure with data."

The company's website describes its work in Kenya in 2013 as "the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa," which enabled the crafting of a campaign "based on the electorate's real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence)." The 2013 vote was the first after brutal violence in 2008, in which over 1,000 people were killed.

People watch the campaign video of Kenya's opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga on a smartphone in Nairobi on September 5, 2017.
Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

Cambridge Analytica's methods involved working with a local research partner "to ensure that variations in language and customs were respected." The outcome targeted young voters via social media.

The spotlight on Cambridge Analytica's methods comes at a time when internet and social media-based influence over Kenyan voters has reached an apex, according to a Nairobi-based data analysis company.

"Misinformation and disinformation have been part of the Kenyan electoral experience since time immemorial," Samer Ahmed, founder of Odipo Dev, told CNBC via email. But it was during 2017's initial August election, and its subsequent October re-run, that a "critical mass" of the voter population was exposed to the internet and social media.

Pedestrians pass an advertisement for the Nokia Asha 205 smartphone in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 17, 2013.
Trevor Snapp | Bloomberg via Getty Images

"This changed the game significantly with regards to the misinformation landscape," Ahmed said. He described "filter bubbles" on social media that acted as a "strong conduit for the fake news we saw spreading within the country."

Kenya's accelerating internet penetration

According to Odipo Dev, Kenya's electorate was susceptible to influence in 2017 like never before, despite an equivalent vote occurring only four years earlier.

A report by Nigerian e-commerce platform Jumia released in April 2017 found that 67 percent of Kenyans were internet users, in comparison to the African average of 18 percent — a trend supported by the country's encouraging economic growth and burgeoning middle-class.

"In a developing, mobile-savvy country like Kenya, four years is a lot of time," Ahmed said. Improving infrastructure meant that internet and smartphone access was "getting cheaper and better by the day." "This is enabling adoption of social media and internet use on massive scales across the country," he added.

Supporters the Kenyan opposition run away from teargas on November 28, 2017, during demonstrations in a suburb of the capital Nairobi.
Tony Karumba | AFP | Getty Images

Kenya has approximately 7 million Facebook users, in comparison to just 4 million in 2013, Ahmed said.

The country's presidential election in August 2017 unraveled an unprecedented story. The vote, which pitted incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta against his long-standing rival Raila Odinga, was overruled by the Supreme Court in September, citing procedural irregularities. The election was held again in October, although Odinga boycotted the second race and Kenyatta emerged victorious with 98 percent of the vote.

The saga was marred by violence. 24 people were killed between the election on August 8 and August 12, when a statement was published by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). Over 100 people were injured, according to Human Rights Watch later that month. From September 1 to October 25 — with the second election taking place on October 26 — the KNCHR recorded 25 deaths.

Opposition supporters rally for presidential candidate Raila Odinga in Uhuru Park on October 25, 2017, in Nairobi, Kenya.
Andrew Renneisen | Getty Images

The 2017 election was a key driver of engagement on social media. Dominant conversations were amplified by coverage on traditional media too.

"Measuring whether and how 'misinformation' actually influences voters' choices is difficult, but there were certainly a number of sites and campaign ads that were flagged by Kenyans and international organizations as using scaremongering tactics to win votes ahead of the August 2017 elections," Rebekka Rumpel, research assistant for the Africa program at think tank Chatham House, told CNBC via email.

Fake news during the Kenyan elections

The 2017 vote saw two key incidences of misinformation, Odipo Dev said, the first being a video entitled "The Real Raila," which depicted a post-apocalyptic world three years into an imagined Odinga presidency. On YouTube, this has been viewed over 141,000 times.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addresses his supporters during demonstrations in the Umoja subururb of Nairobi, Kenya, on November 28, 2017.
Tony Karumba | AFP | Getty Images

There was also misinformation about the violence that surrounded the electoral process, in which "people were taking videos and photos of past occurrences and posing them as currently going-on events," Ahmed said.

London-based charity Privacy International traced "The Real Raila" video back to Harris Media LLC, a U.S. digital advertising firm linked to President Donald Trump's election campaign.

"This shows the importance of widening the conversation beyond Cambridge Analytica and its role in the Kenyan elections, and examining the involvement and impact of Western PR and digital media firms in election campaigns in Kenya and across the world more generally," Rumpel said.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pictured in the capital Nairobi casting his vote during the general election on August 8, 2017.
Andrew Wasike | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and its Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology did not respond to CNBC's multiple requests for comment.

Kenyan media giant Safaricom said in its 2017 sustainability report that its "biggest challenge" was tackling fake news.

Turnbull also referenced work in Nigeria in the Channel 4's report. Cambridge Analytica's website also outlines its role in the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa, which took place in 1994.