MANILA, Philippines – Questionable rule of law, high social media usage, and corrupt politicians. These 3 conditions, according to Cambridge Analytica (CA) whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, made countries like the Philippines a perfect place to test their techniques and technology.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal blew up in March 2018 after Wylie came forward, revealing that the company had accessed the data of millions of Facebook users to target them for political campaigns. Facebook later reported that data of over 87 million users was harvested.
Of the 87 million, 70.6 million users were from the United States, with the Philippines coming in second at 1.2 million users.
In an interview with Rappler’s Maria Ressa on the sidelines of the Antidote Festival in Sydney, Australia, Wylie said Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, already had roots in the Philippines even before the scandal broke.
“And SCL Group, even before I joined, had a relatively long history working in Filipino politics. And even whilst I was working at Cambridge Analytica – staff from the company would go and visit the Philippines.”
“And the way SCL and later Cambridge Analytica would make money is they would go into countries with relatively underdeveloped regulatory infrastructure or questionable rule of law where it was easy to get away with things…and create propaganda and support politicians who would be willing later to pay back favors,” Wylie said.
But why the Philippines?
Wylie said the country’s high social media usage and lack of regulation makes it lucrative for a company like Cambridge Analytica to test out strategy before implementing them in Western countries with tighter regulations.
“The Philippines is one of those countries where you’ve got a lot of people online and a lot of people using social media. So when you’ve got that kind of set-up, it’s an ideal target.”
“A lot of the time when the company was looking to experiment with techniques, experiment with AI [artificial intelligence], experiment with ways of – whether it’s manipulating voter opinion or disseminating propaganda, what have you…it’s more difficult to do that in countries like the US or Britain, or Europe, where there is robust regulatory action, there’s robust law enforcement.”
“It creates an ideal petri dish type situation,” Wylie added, “where you can experiment on tactics and techniques that you wouldn’t be able to as easily in the West…and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, you won’t get caught. And if it does work, then you can then figure out how to port that into other countries,”
“Is it fair to say that the trial and error, the petri dish in the Philippines,” Ressa asked, “paved the way for Brexit and Donald Trump?”
“Filipino politics kinda looks a lot like the United States,” said Wylie. “You’ve got a president who was Trump before Trump was Trump, and you have relationships with people close to him with SCL and Cambridge Analytica. And you have a lot of data being collected – the second largest amount of data after the United States being collected in the Philippines.”
SCL in the Philippines
A 2010 version of SCL’s company website claimed that it ran a campaign for a presidential candidate. That claim is no longer on their site.
While the company did not specify which candidate or which campaign period they worked on, the image used was from the 2010 presidential elections where former president Benigno Aquino III won. Aquino’s campaign manager Butch Abad denied working with SCL or Cambridge Analytica. (READ: Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm claims it won 2010 election for PH president)
SCL said one of its offices is located in the Philippines. The supposed local office, Istratehiya Inc, was founded in 2012. A previous report by Rappler revealed that one of the incorporators of Istratehiya is Rey Faizal Ponce Millan, a Davao-based lawyer with ties to President Rodrigo Duterte. (READ: Cambridge Analytica’s parent company claims ties with Duterte friend)
Millan was also identified as one of the people in a photo of suspended Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix having lunch with those in the Duterte campaign, including Jose Gabriel “Pompee” La Viña and Peter Tiu La Viña.
Pompee La Viña denied working with SCL or Cambridge Analytica but said that their social media strategy for the Duterte campaign was “influenced” by Nix’s talk.
Then-Istratehiya president Jed Eva III said there were exploratory talks on collaboration with SCL but they never came to fruition.
“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.
Wylie, however, said there was an office in the Philippines and that work was done in the country.
“I am aware that there was a Philippine office. I believe it was on the website. And I am pretty sure that, that was the office that was being used.”
“I do know that at that time, the company did do work in the Philippines. And I do know that it was for a – what they would describe as an alt-right candidate who used to be a mayor in the city…but I can’t confirm exactly,” Wylie said.
According to Wylie, SCL uses proxy companies in different countries.
“If you look at how SCL and Cambridge Analytica operated in a lot of countries – and they even said this in some of the undercover statements that were done in the UK…they don’t go into a country as Cambridge Analytica. They don’t go into a country as SCL Group because it’s too obvious. So you use local partners (proxies). You use proxies. You set up – and they’re on camera admitting this.”
He also said: “They go into countries, set up bullshit companies that are just fronts and they send in staff. And you know, it makes it very difficult for regulators or opposition parties to actually identify what’s happening and as they also have admitted, once an election is done, they just get out.”
Wylie slammed what he called digital colonialism by technology companies: “like the story that always repeats itself – colonialism never died, it just moved online.”
“You have powerful white people from the West going into a country that is less powerful or less rich, going in and exploiting resources. And when there’s a problem, it just gets out. Or doesn’t do anything about it. And the real problem that I have with the way Silicon Valley is operating is that it’s not giving due consideration to the rights and well-being of people who are not in the West.” – Rappler.com