Months before Donald Trump’s presidential victory which stunned the world and pollsters— the FBI started a covert inquiry on suspected cyber hacking and social media foreign interference on the U.S. electoral politics. The two key political parties had their computer systems hacked with varied success. The DNC, Hillary Clinton’s party was the worst affected. Political operatives internet sites were compromised and a throve of compromising data leaked via Wikileaks and other publishing platforms.
Trump’s success is credited by many to his son-in-law Jarred Kushner’s data mining focused campaign, which targeted social media user data and the use of targeted Facebook advertising. Later it was revealed that a Russian internet political marketing firm, the Internet Research Agency, whose 470 pages and accounts were seen by an estimated 157 million Americans in which it had trafficked Trump bias propaganda including agenda promotion.
This year, a young man from the U.K. Christopher Wylie, a former research director at Cambridge Analytica, found his moral compass and went to media to reveal that Trump advisor and campaign manager Steve Bannon had co-financed and contracted the data science firm Wylie had worked for to take data from 87 million of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. Facebook had profited from selling access to user data without too much concern as to the ultimate use of such data.
Cambridge Analytica used the information to establish a political technology treasure throve for profit. Users data was mined to identify personal subconscious biases and design targeted political messaging to trigger specific emotions, anxieties to influence user political decisions.
What has turned people off is that this method turns to exploit people’s outward and inward vulnerabilities. It can be seen as psychological trickery. The Democratic Alliance whose campaign messaging around immigration is aiming at setting off psychological triggers from the jobless South Africans and those who fear immigrants in general by evoking need for a hard border and enhanced immigration controls.
There is a clear targeting plan on voters who may hold subconscious xenophobic feelings. This targeting can only be gleaned through data mining. The Mayor of Johannesburg, the party’s Herman Mashaba has made “cleaning the streets” of Johannesburg of illegal immigrants a centerpiece of his administration. Mashaba seems to be gaining popularity as a result.
The Democratic Alliance as a center right party finds affinity with president Trump’s immigration policies and other right leaning politicians as seen in France, Holland or Poland. The party has also promoted imposing of tariffs on goods, just as Trump has done.
It is clear that in South Africa, at least the Democratic Alliance is using big data for its digital campaign and the tools they employ are sophisticated. They check the identities, beliefs and habits of their target potential voter, their leader is actively attempting to appear connected with township anthropology as he often tries to tweet like am authentic “black”, a challenge he has. The party is the prolific user of bulk geo targeting SMS campaigns. There are attempts to extend this to messaging app WhatsApp.
Recently after a national soccer team’s game, he tweeted in township lingua – “sure Bafana sure” – missing the mark as the lingua is scribed, “sho Bafana sho”, though meaning “sure”. Generally, social media is the new mass media and the DA is making social media, not stadium rallies, a critical area to show its support and influence. Political technologists are becoming a central feature in the body of political show of power and influence.
Micro targeting of voters is now a front line tool for most political technologists, a field that is fast becoming specialized. The Democratic Alliance has had a number of misses in this regard especially in past election campaigns when it sent bulk SMS’s evoking anger amongst a number of potential voters who questioned where the party got user cellular phone numbers. Clearly, the party has been developing a robust database of South African voters.
Companies like Blue Label, Trendset and others have for a while been mining data from Home Affairs, courts, municipal vehicle registration, credit check companies and selling these to the likes of the Democratic Alliance. These companies boast tens of millions data sets on over 50 million South Africans and at least 30 million South African voters. A global firm, Gas, has created a database with over 350 million African voters across the continent as well. The data points include age, race, income, mortgages, purchasing and investment profiles, occupational information and network of linked family or friends.
The Democratic Alliance is also working with Israeli and U.S. based cyber security firm Verint Systems which specializes in intelligence gathering on the internet, the dark web, general defensive and offensive cyber security. Companies are arming the party with sophisticated tools to wage a digital warfare to gain votes in particular amongst black South African in Gauteng. The question is how far are these tools used by the DA as the capabilities include potential GSM eavesdropping and network geo-tagging.
Mmusi Maimane was advised to fashion himself to president Barak Obama during 2014 elections, this bombed spectacularly. This time around he has been advised to fashion himself in president Nelson Mandela’s image – his dress code has changed to a ‘Mandelasque’ fashion and iconography. The question is, is Maimane’s proness for brand appropriation the only offer in the Democratic Alliance. Is it the only available thing for the party to persuade voters, in particular the black voter?
The Democratic Alliance’s messaging of corruption, cadre deployment and incompetence on the part of the governing African National Congress has fallen flat as allegations of corruption in the Democratic Alliance are coming out. The image of a clean party also was irrevocably damaged when the party chose to go into a governing coalition with the militant Economic Freedom Fighters a party led by person’s long accused of corruption by Public Protector.
It is not a shock that Maimane is close to calling for a border wall to walled out South Africa from the rest of the frontline states, an immigrant ban and tax cuts for the rich and business sector – a script from the core led by president Donald Trump. South Africans must prepare to see Maimane more in a Madiba shirt as part of the DA’s voter manipulation strategy – the Madiba shirt’s psychographic intent extends to voter private data and all internet use.
Cellular phone service provider MTN was correct to halt its free twitter services especially heading to elections as it would have made robots and troll factories easy to create and spread fake news.
Bongani Mbindwane is senior researcher at Majembeni & Cassandra Insights; he is former National Security Advisor to South African Police Services. On twitter @mbindwane.