Cambridge Analytica helped Philippines’ brutal authoritarian leader win election

Thousands have since died in Duterte's drug war.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a statement during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-South Korea Summit on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN Summit. (CREDIT: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a statement during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-South Korea Summit on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN Summit. (CREDIT: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Strategic Communications Laboratories, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, previously boasted on its website on it how re-branded Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte into a “strong, no-nonsense man of action” during the country’s 2016 election.

In an archived version of its website, first obtained by the South China Morning Post, SCL talks about how it helped fashion Duterte into an election-winning candidate. The brief doesn’t refer to the candidate by name, but it does point to the former mayor of Davao City — Duterte’s previous role.

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“SCL’s research showed that many groups within the electorate were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as toughness and decisiveness,” the website read. “SCL used the cross-cutting issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true value of the voters.”

Ever since blockbuster reporting by the Observer and the New York Times — and then later Channel 4 — the scope of SCL and Cambridge Analytica’s role in affecting elections worldwide has become alarmingly clear. The company was active in elections in Nigeria, Kenya, Trinidad & Tobago, and Latvia, to name but a few, often exploiting longstanding ethnic tensions to create fear and misinformation online and to drive voters towards the candidates Cambridge Analytica worked for.

When that didn’t work, Cambridge Analytica was more-than-happy to use more traditional political dark arts, like using sex workers to entrap political opponents. “[We can] send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix told undercover investigators from Channel 4. “[Ukrainian girls] are very beautiful, I find that works very well.”

In the United States, Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from Facebook, unbeknownst to the users, to help “microtarget” voters with highly customized advertisements to persuade them to vote for Trump in the 2016 presidential election — or even just not vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

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Facebook initially said that 50 million people had been affected by the data breach, but in an update on Wednesday the company increased that number to a staggering 87 million.

“We only just finalized our understanding of the situation in the last I think couple of days on this,” Zuckerberg explained to reporters. “We wanted to take a broad view that is a conservative estimate. I am quite confident that given our analysis that it is not more than 87 million.”

Facebook’s sudden, dramatic revision follows a familiar pattern. Shortly after the election of Trump, Zuckerberg said that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that fake news helped influence the election, before later admitting the problem was endemic and rolling out a series of strategies to counter it. When the company handed over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress last September, it said that around 10 million Americans had been exposed to the ads. Then the figure was revised drastically upwards, first to 70 million, then to 126 million.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, Duterte has taken his “man of action” relabeling quite seriously. He’s instituted a brutal drug war which has resulted in the deaths of 12,000 people and is being investigated for running a death squad during his time as mayor of Davao. Duterte has also decided to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court, which is in the preliminary stages of investigating human rights abuses in the country.

“Police have planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets on victims’ bodies to implicate them in drug activities”, Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report read. “Masked gunmen taking part in killings appeared to be working closely with police, casting doubt on government claims that most killings have been committed by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.”

What a startling rebranding success for SCL.