How firms like Cambridge Analytica influence elections

Everything that we know so far about the controversial firm Cambridge Analytica and its Indian arm

Photo courtesy: company website
Photo courtesy: company website

NH Political Bureau

Senior executives at Cambridge Analytica, including its CEO Alexander Nix, were caught on camera by TV network Channel 4 suggesting the firm could use sex workers, bribes and fake news to discredit political rivals. They also boasted of influencing elections in 200 countries including India.

Channel 4 reported that, “In a series of meetings filmed at London hotels over four months, between November 2017 and January 2018, an undercover reporter for Channel 4 News posed as a fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka.” It went on to quote CA executives as saying:

• “Separately, Mr Turnbull described how the company could create proxy organisations to discreetly feed negative material about opposition candidates on to the Internet and social media.

• “Sometimes you can use proxy organisations who are already there. You feed them. They are civil society organisations.. Charities or activist groups, and we use them – feed them the material and they do the work…

• “We just put information into the bloodstream to the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape. And so, this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands but with no branding – so it’s unattributable, untrackable” …

The story broke around 10 days ago when a whistleblower, a former employee of both Facebook and CA, described to the Observer Group of newspapers how CA had mined personal data of 50 million Americans and ran Donald Trump’s online campaign for the Presidency.

CA executives boasted to the undercover reporter of Channel 4 that its Indian arm had helped Indian political parties and politicians to win elections. Since then the controversy has snowballed with the Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad publicly accusing the Congress of using the services of CA to win elections. Congress has called it a white lie.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:

  • Which Indian firm is being referred to as CA’s Indian arm?

Oveleno Business Intelligence Private Ltd. with its registered office at 13, Bengali Market, New Delhi. Amrish Kumar Tyagi, son of JD(U) leader and former MP KC Tyagi as one of the directors. This is the company, incorporated in January, 2010 which is said to have helped Nitish Kumar and the BJP alliance win in the Bihar assembly election.

  • Does the company still exist?

Curiously, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs website indicates that the company was struck off the list of registered companies in 2012. The last AGM was held on 30/9/12 and the last balance sheet of the company was filed on 31/3/2012.

  • Did Amrish Tyagi suggest that the company was still operational in 2016?

The Telegraph reported in 2016 that Tyagi was going to the US to help Donald Trump in his campaign. It went on to report, “ Amrish owns a psephology and campaign consultancy firm called Ovleno Business Intelligence Private Limited, founded in 2010, which worked for Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal in last year's elections in Bihar and Delhi, respectively. "Some of Trump's aides had come to India in 2011 and were impressed with how we work here. Later, they approached us for this job and we agreed," Amrish was quoted as saying. .

  • Is Cambridge Analytica under investigation?

The British Electoral Commission and the US Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller looking into the alleged Russian intervention in the US election are looking into the role of the company.

  • How do we know CA or its Indian arm influenced Bihar election in 2010?

The company’s own website mentions that in 2010, it undertook an “in-depth electorate analysis” for the Bihar assembly election. The contract “included identifying swing voters for each of the parties and measuring their level of electoral apathy, among other things. Our client achieved a landslide victory, with over 90% of the total seats targeted by CA being won,” the website says. The alliance led by Janata Dal United (JDU) leader Nitish Kumar had won with a a four-fifth majority, making it one of the biggest victories in the state’s history.

While CA itself was founded in 2013, the Bihar contract was undertaken by its parent, the Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) Group, reported news website The Wire. SCL operates in India through a local partner, Ovlene Business Intelligence (OBI), owned by Amrish Tyagi.

  • What do companies like CA do?

Companies like CA are said to use ‘predictive analytics and behavioral sciences’ to draw trends based on user data. “Analysing millions of data points, we consistently identified the most persuadable voters and the issues they cared about. We then sent targeted messages to them at key times in order to move them to action,” the company’s website says about the US polls.

  • Did Congress or BJP use the services of CA?

The Congress has categorically denied having used or hired the services of CA. Sam Pitroda, who heads the Overseas Congress and is believed to be close to the Gandhi family, today tweeted, “I am intimately involved in digital initiatives in the party directly and/or indirectly. I can say with authority and to the best of my knowledge that the news about the use of Cambridge Analytics by @INCIndia party is a pure lie. #STOPspreadingLies”

  • Does India have the expertise that CA offers?

Yes, says Pitroda. “ I have spent over 50 years in Telecom and IT business and know enough about Big Data, analytics, cloud computing, machine learning and other related technologies. I know that Cambridge Analytica has nothing unique to offer us that people like me do not know or cannot learn.”

“We built on our own ADHAAR, Data Centers, Cyber Security, National Knowledge Network of Gigabit bandwidth, National GIS, connectivity to Panchayats, and various applications for Digital India which one billion people use happily !!!”, he added.

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