Despite furore, Cambridge Analytica won’t be a big election issue, say analysts
THE international controversy surrounding data analytics and political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its links with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition as well as a Pakatan Harapan (PH) leader will have little impact on political parties in the general election, analysts said.
Although CA was said to have worked with BN in Kedah in 2013 and as a result, is now linked to former Kedah menteri besar Mukhriz Mahathir who is with PH, the issue will not resonate with rural voters, whose support is needed by both the rival coalitions.
It will give both sides something to criticise each other about for political mileage, said Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Professor Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, but beyond that, it is something that happened in the past and is no longer a current issue.
Azizuddin, who studies Kedah and its politics, even doubted that CA had actually done work in Kedah in 2013.
This was because its methods, which used data and profiles of social media users to craft election campaign messages, would not have been relevant in a state like Kedah, he said.
“This method would not have worked for Kedah, a state that is mostly rural. Facebook users’ data would not have helped.
“They would not have made significant impact on Kedah voters… not enough to deliver BN victory. BN used other methods to gain voter support,” he told The Malaysian Insight.
Azizuddin said CA’s methods would have had more impact on urban voters, but the more urban seats in Kedah like Alor Setar and Sungai Petani were won by the opposition.
“I doubt CA was really involved in the election in Kedah,” he said.
CA, a British firm, is being accused of using data collected from Facebook without permission in early 2014 to predict and influence voters by sending targeted campaign messages. It handled US President Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016 using data gleaned from people’s social media profiles.
On its website, it also lists Malaysia as a case study where it “supported Barisan Nasional in Kedah with a targeted messaging campaign highlighting their school improvements since 2008” that led to BN winning the state in the 2013 general election.
Mark Turnbull, managing director of CA Political Global, was also recorded by undercover reporters stating that his company had done electioneering work in several countries, including Malaysia.
Won’t hurt opposition
The concern about CA in Malaysia centres on the possibility that BN may have used a firm involved in stealing people’s data, and whose now-suspended CEO Alexander Nix has been caught on tape by undercover reporters admitting to the use of unethical practices in electioneering.
It has seen Mukhriz, now Bersatu’s deputy president, deny any knowledge of CA’s work while he was BN elections director for Kedah in 2013. He became menteri besar that year after BN won the state.
Mukhriz denied links with CA twice – the second time after BN issued a statement through the Prime Minister’s Office denying that it had never hired CA for its services and pointed its finger at Mukhriz instead.
But BowerGroupAsia analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani said the controversy might hurt Pakatan Harapan and Bersatu’s credibility only a little and would not have a huge impact.
“Although the Channel 4 expose was shocking, I don’t think the controversy will reverberate amongst the electorate in the key rural constituencies.
“It may have an impact on PH’s credibility on electoral transparency, as the opposition will be fielding civil society candidates who are critical of previous general elections.
“But the damage is likely to be limited to Bersatu alone. I don’t think this issue will affect the opposition support base,” said the government affairs and public policy consultant.
Meanwhile, Ilham Centre executive director Hisommudin Bakar said PH should state its stand on the use of foreign consultancies in crafting election campaigns.
“It is a serious matter. Does PH agree with using foreign consultant firms in elections?” he told The Malaysian Insight.
Hisommuddin also said the onus was on Putrajaya to explain the role of CA.
He said Putrajaya needed to explain to the people whether it was true that the services of CA was used in the election, and whether such “meddling in domestic politics” jeopardised the security of the country.
“To link any former government leader, who is now in the opposition, (to the matter) can be seen as diverting public attention to avoid answering the real questions.”