MANILA, Philippines – The website of Strategic Communications Laboratory (SCL), the parent company of British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, brandishes a world map that identifies the location of its offices in 12 countries that include the Philippines.
In Manila, SCL lists its local office as “Istrathehiya Inc”, a misspelling of an actual Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)-registered company, Istratehiya Inc, founded in 2012.
On its own website, Istratehiya describes itself as “a one stop shop for all strategic communications and political operations requirements, whether for government or corporate affairs, or for elections purposes.”
Further describing its work, Istratehiya says it “specializes in electoral campaigns, particularly with respect to strategic communications and political operations, and provides internal and external support services for government and corporate accounts.”
SEC documents obtained by Rappler show that one of the incorporators and directors of Istratehiya is Rey Faizal Ponce Millan, also known as “Taipan Millan”.
Millan, who hails from Davao, is a lawyer and family friend of President Rodrigo Duterte. Besides having ties with Duterte, he is known to have worked with several politicians in the past.
He is also the current chairman of Istratehiya.
Besides Millan, the company’s Articles of Incorporation listed its other founders in 2012 as: Bernard R. Peralta, Cesario M. Davila Jr, Hamilcar T. Rutaquio, and Diana B. Peralta, wife of Bernard.
Today, while Millan is chairman, the company’s president is Jed Eva III, who belongs to the same fraternity as Millan himself: Alpha Phi Beta of the University of the Philippines College of Law.
2012 Articles of Incorporation:
SCL meanwhile, claims it influenced elections in 32 countries across the world – including the Philippines. (READ: Cambridge Analytica’s parent company involved in PH polls as early as 2013)
But did SCL use local company Istratehiya Inc for its operations?
Nix initiated contact
The SCL Group was founded in the United Kingdom in 1993 but it wasn’t until October 2012 that it registered a subsidiary named SCL Elections – which was focused on new technology that can be used for campaigns.
All company shares were owned by Alexander Nix, the now suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly 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 year before the 2016 presidential elections in the Philippines, Nix came to Manila supposedly to do some “research”. It appears however, he came primarily to meet with Istratehiya representatives. (READ: Did Cambridge Analytica use Filipinos’ Facebook data to help Duterte win?)
Eva, Istratehiya’s president, admitted to Rappler that SCL reached out to them for a possible partnership, and said representatives from both companies finally met in person in 2015.
“While SCL initially approached the company and has been in touch with Istratehiya for some time, their representative only met with company reps in person in 2015,” he told Rappler in an email on Friday, April 6.
In a later email on Monday, April 9, Eva admitted that the person Millan “met and had lunch with” was Nix himself. The meeting took place in May 2015, in Intramuros, Manila, after Nix delivered a talk on modern and technological tools for election campaigns.
While Eva admitted Istratehiya had been in talks with, and had met with SCL, he however insisted that the two groups did not end up partnering.
“There were discussions regarding the possibility of working together on some projects, but nothing came out of these exploratory talks,” Eva said.
He also denied that Istratehiya ever worked with SCL in any elections, including the campaign of Duterte.
“Istratehiya is not an affiliate or partner of the SCL Group nor Cambridge Analytica (CA). None of Istratehiya’s management team is currently connected with CA or the SCL Group,” he said.
Eva denied any ties with SCL, yet on the SCL website, Istratehiya is named as its local affiliate in the Philippines.
“While Istratehiya Chairman Atty Taipan Millan hails from Davao, he was not, at any point, part of the President’s campaign,” he said.
Asked how long SCL and Istratehiya had been talking before the meeting took place, and how long after the 2015 meeting they stayed in touch, Eva did not reply.
(Click on the faces in the interactive graph below to learn more about each individual and how they’re linked to each other.)
On the SCL website, the address of the misspelled “Istrathehiya” is listed as Bonifacio Global City (BGC).
Eva said they are aware “that our firm name and one of our old office addresses was on the SCL website,” but insisted the company’s information was only used by SCL despite not having any signed agreements.
“We requested them to remove it, but apparently they did not,” he told Rappler.
“It is only very recently that it was brought to our attention that our company name and old office address were still there, and that they even got the spelling of our company name wrong.”
A visit to the listed address showed that it is a co-working office on the 14th floor of the Net Cube building called Regus, where global companies often hire space for their satellite offices but don’t have actual staff working there.
When Rappler asked to speak to a representative from Istratehiya, the receptionist of Regus said there was no such company based there. The BGC office was Istratehiya’s previous address.
Rappler also emailed the Philippine office email listed on the SCL website, but the email bounced back. All other emails to the other worldwide offices also bounced back, indicating that the office and email addresses still listed on the site are either non-existent or they no longer exist.
This reporter then visited the listed address on Istratehiya’s website in UP Village, which led to a residential property. A worker confirmed it was the Istratehiya office.
A representative of the company in UP Village said Istratehiya was not an affiliate of SCL, which was later reiterated via email by Eva.
Istratehiya has serviced both corporate and political clients – the latter, at the local and national levels, Rappler has independently verified.
Asked what was discussed between Nix and Millan during the lunch in 2015, Eva replied: “Our two firms exchanged notes, with the SCL Group bringing to the table knowledge and experience gleaned from campaigns around the world, and the firm contributing its familiarity with Philippine socio-political dynamics,” he said.
“Simply put, we wanted to learn from them, and they wanted to learn from us,” he explained.
In his talk in Manila, Nix discussed new tools in campaigning like behavioral microtargeting and psychographic profiling. Psychographic profiling and behavioral microtargeting were the precise techniques used by Cambridge Analytica in the Trump campaign.
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.
Data suggests psychographics was also used in the 2016 Philippine elections, months before the US elections took place. Facebook itself said 1,175,870 Filipino users may have had their social media information improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica – putting the Philippines only behind the United States in terms of the number of people whose data was compromised.
During the lunch with Nix, the social media director of Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign, Jose Gabriel “Pompee” La Viña, and his cousin Peter Tiu La Viña, who was Duterte’s campaign spokesperson and head of media, were in attendance. (READ: Duterte social media campaign manager: ‘Nix influenced my work’)
Former journalist and NPC president at that time Joel Egco was also present. Egco now works under the Duterte administration as a Presidential Communications Undersecretary.
All 3 have denied any involvement with SCL.
SCL for its part, has claimed having done work in the Philippines even before the 2016 presidential elections. However, it was only in 2014 that Cambridge Analytica acquired the data they used for the 2016 elections.
In 2013, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) released Resolution 9615, prohibitting foreigners from meddling in Philippines elections. Section 4 of the resolution reads:
“It is unlawful for any foreigner, whether a juridical or natural person, to directly or indirectly aid any candidate, or political party, organization or coalition, or to take part in, or influence in any manner, any election, or to contribute or make any expenditure in connection with any election campaign or partisan political activity.”
A violation could result in up to 6 years in prison, disqualification of the candidate, and a fine. Foreigners in the country found guilty of meddling could also face prison time and deportation. – with reports from Michael Bueza and Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com