Did Cambridge Analytica use Filipinos’ Facebook data to help Duterte win?

Natashya Gutierrez

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Did Cambridge Analytica use Filipinos’ Facebook data to help Duterte win?
Facebook says data of over 1.1 million Filipinos was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica

MANILA, Philippines – It appears that 6 months before the United States presidential elections in 2016, Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, also had a hand in the Philippine presidential race. 

Facebook data of Filipinos was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, according to the social media company itself.

In a post by Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer on Wednesday, April 4, he said that about 1,175,870 Filipino users may have had their Facebook information improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.

The Philippines is only behind the United States in terms of the number of people whose data was compromised.

FACEBOOK DATA. Facebook says Philippine users may have had their Facebook information improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. Graph from Facebook

Cambridge Analytica is the communications firm at the center of a global scandal, amid allegations it harvested data of millions of Facebook users for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The end goal was to create software to predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.

The company used data collected online via Facebook to segment voters by their personalities and behavior. The information was then used to target Facebook users on content specifically tailored for them.

“If you know the personality of the people you’re targeting, you can nuance your messaging to resonate more effectively with those key groups,” Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix said in a 2016 speech.

It turns out that this technique was used in the Philippine elections too.

The parent company website of Cambridge Analytica, Strategic Communication Laboratories, or SCL Group, shows it has 13 offices worldwide – including the Philippines.

In fact no other than Nix himself was in the country in the lead-up to the elections.

Nix in Manila

About a year before the presidential polls, Nix, also director of SCL, was in Manila.

Former journalist and now Presidential Communications Undersecretary Joel Egco covered Nix’s visit for the Manila Times. The article said Nix was in the country “for a research.”

Egco, who was then the president of the National Press Club of the Philippines, wrote that Nix was a guest of the NPC. 

In his article, Egco quoted Nix as saying, “While TV continue to dominate the campaign landscape, the most powerful way to win elections is to have the people themselves campaign for you. Instead of relying heavily on political surveys, campaign strategists must use those data to influence the behavior of the person.” 

In his talk, he also talked about “new strategies and tactics that are products of behavioral microtargeting, psychographic profiling, predictive analytics, and many other modern tools.”

Psychographic profiling and behavioral microtargeting were the precise techniques used by Cambridge Analytica in the Trump campaign, and apparently in the Philippines, according to Facebook’s disclosure of Filipinos’ compromised data.

SUSPENDED. In this file photo, Cambridge Analytica's chief executive officer Alexander Nix gives an interview during the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon on November 9, 2017. File photo by Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP

Nix has been suspended by Cambridge Analytica as recordings emerged in which he boasted of his data company playing an expansive role in Trump’s 2016 campaign, doing all of its research, analytics as well as digital and television campaigns.

Egco meanwhile, now works for the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte but denies any knowledge of links between Nix or Duterte when he wrote about Nix in 2015.

Who benefited?

If Cambridge Analytica was involved in Philippine elections, which candidate benefitted?

According to a report by the South China Morning Post, the company helped Duterte, former Davao mayor and now Philippine president.

The report said that an archived version of the SCL website boasts of its role in the rebranding of its client “as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true values of the voters.”

While Duterte was not mentioned, this is the image adopted by the presidential candidate during his campaign.

The now removed section of the SCL website, which talked about their work in the Philippines, reads in full:

“In the run up to national elections the incumbent client was widely perceived as both kind and honourable, qualities his campaign team thought were potentially election-winning. But SCL’s research showed that many groups within the electorate were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as toughness and decisiveness. SCL used the crosscutting issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true values of the voters.” 

However, the description appeared as early as 2013 in a SCL brochure.

Duterte ran for a national post only in 2016 – or 3 years after SCL’s brochure was published.

The blurb does not mention the name of the candidate, but national elections in 2013 were only for senatorial and congressional positions. It could also have been referring to earlier elections, such as the 2010 polls – the earliest record so far of SCL claiming a Philippine client. – Rappler.com

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.