Data-mining is coming to an African election near you. President Uhuru Kenyatta's re-election campaign has contracted Cambridge Analytica, the data company widely credited with having swung last year's United States' presidential poll for Donald Trump and Britain's European Union referendum for 'Leave' with its digital targeting campaigns on social media.
Owned by American Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund owner and biggest donor to the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica paid Facebook and other third-party data companies for information about potential voters in the USA and Britain. It then bombarded voters with social media posts, adverts and news snippets of varying degrees of veracity. In Kenya, where internet and Facebook use is high, such tactics would hugely help the Jubilee party.
In countries such as Russia, Iran and Moldova, Cambridge Analytica's operations have proved highly successful. With some staff drawn from military intelligence, it is also expert in psychological warfare. The spectre of a highly secretive data mining company using such techniques is raising serious concern among Kenyan activists. They point out that wounds have barely healed from the 2007 post-election violence. Electoral regulations are yet to catch up with the data-mining age: a new report describes Britain's electoral laws as 'weak and helpless' in the face of such cyber techniques. The same would apply in Kenya.