From India to Malaysia, Indonesia to Thailand, Asian politicians are realising this week that they won’t be spared the blowback their Western counterparts are facing over controversial data-driven campaigning practices that have been thrust into the spotlight by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. 

Since the initial blitz of revelations in mid-March about the British-based data-mining firm’s alleged illegal use of Facebook data from millions of US voters to aid Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, a continuing trickle of information is showing such electoral skulduggery may have taken place in this part of the world too. 

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Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica data analyst-turned-whistleblower, on Wednesday tweeted that the firm had done “extensive” work in Indian politics in the past decade, wryly adding that such campaigning by a Western outfit was akin to “modern-day colonialism”. 

That intensified a headache for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which had been trading barbs with the opposition Congress party over whether the opposing side had been using the tainted firm’s services. 

Wylie did not confirm either party had used the firm, but the information he released about India showed that SCL Group – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company – had done work for a “national party” and a “major state party”. 

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The news site Quartz meanwhile reported this week that SCL Group had played a role in organising university rallies in Indonesia in the months before the 1998 fall of then-dictator Suharto, as a means to help students “let off steam”. 

The website, which based the report on a Cambridge Analytica document it had seen, quoted Abdurrahman Wahid, the late Islamic cleric who briefly served as the country’s president in the post-Suharto era, as saying in the report he was grateful to the company for their “strategic management of my election success”. 

The documents also said the group was engaged in Thailand in the 2000s to gauge public enthusiasm towards putting a stop to the country’s rampant vote-buying practices.

In Malaysia, where observers say a national vote is likely to be called by Prime Minister Najib Razak within weeks, leaders from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc used the ongoing debate on data privacy as fresh fodder for pre-election jousting. 

Tech-savvy youth leaders from Barisan Nasional this week questioned the source of data used by the opposition-backed data analysis firm Invoke Malaysia, which has projected major inroads for Pakatan Harapan on the back of a survey involving some 200,000 would-be voters. 

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While there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in any of these places, experts say the public rancour is down to a realisation of the fine line politicians have been treading as they balance the public’s right to privacy with the constant pressure to use all tools at their disposal to sway voters in their favour in an era of permanent campaigning. 

EMPATHY IN THE DIGITAL AGE

The reputation of the political data-crunching sector may have been battered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but insiders continue to insist there is nothing wrong with data use in political campaigning per se. 

After all, Cambridge Analytica’s troubles are not simply borne out of its data use. 

Instead, the company is in hot water because it scooped up the personal data of Facebook users for use in political campaigning – a practice barred by the social network. 

Otherwise, data-driven political campaigning has become commonplace in the West, and here in Asia. 

In the United States and Britain, millions of dollars have been spent in recent elections on data-driven digital campaigning. 

Barack Obama’s 2012 US presidential campaign is widely seen as the first major, successful campaign to have comprehensively embraced data-driven messaging. 

For decades, campaign managers combed basic voter records – publicly available in many developed democracies – to help decide how to craft messages to win over voters. 

Roger Do, founder of Singapore-based data analysis firm AutoPolitic, said firms like his “levelled up” such traditional practices by giving campaign managers the option of combining basic voter information with “open source” information about their online activity. 

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This allows the campaign to move beyond the broad brush afforded by analogue voter information rolls – think age, address, ethnicity – and towards considering aspects of voter behaviour, mentality and ideology. This hybrid information is termed psychographic data. 

Psychographic data enables what is termed “micro-targeting”, where customised advertisements are placed in an online platform where the target voter is most likely to see or hear them. 

Apart from placement, the technology also allows campaigns to perform “social listening”, where they are able to track the psychographic profiles of people who are talking about a specific issue online. 

For example, politicians will be able to get a grasp of the psychographic profile of people who oppose a certain policy and are vocal about their views online. 

These methods have been part of the modus operandi of corporate marketers for years, but the proliferation of data analytics technology has allowed it to be used by political campaign teams who target hundreds of millions of people at one go in places like India. 

“This is empathy in the digital age. Before you only had a handful of think tanks and research institutes telling you what voters want,” said Do, whose firm services political parties across Asia, including in Taiwan and Malaysia. 

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In Southeast Asia, only a handful of political parties are using data in the sophisticated manner of their Western counterparts, but this is likely to change as politicians realise the edge they can gain from using psychographic analysis in one of the world’s most social media-savvy regions, Do said. 

POLARISATION

Do and other experts however caution against papering over the insidious aspects of data-driven campaigning – including fomenting polarisation through micro-targeted propaganda. 

This involves a politician consolidating support within his own narrow base via constant, customised messaging, instead of canvassing the wider electorate with a more centrist message. 

In Modi’s India, where the BJP is becoming increasingly strident with its Hindu nationalist message, there are concerns the ruling party could employ such tactics ahead of national polls next year. 

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Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, said it was likely that the effect of propaganda messages in the country was “more acute” than in the West because wide swathes of its 1.3 billion population was being exposed to digital media for the first time. 

“It’s like the first time a movie was screened. The audience had never seen a cinematographic work, and when the image of a moving train came on the screen, the audience ran out of the hall. That is the impact,” Abraham said. He cautioned, however, that there are no empirical studies proving the effect of data-driven propaganda in India. 

Carl Miller, research director at the London-based Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, said “data-driven targeting certainly could be used to drive polarisation”. 

A study of some 10,000 British social media users in a project called “Who Targets Me” showed how “grievances and hang-ups among small groups can be massaged and used” by politicians. 

“Messages that were too divisive to send out to a mass audience can now be sent to small targeted groups,” Miller said. “Almost certainly it’s making the problem worse, and reducing the common experience we have of politics – of hearing people say the same things, on a series of common themes.” 

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Do said he was more worried about micro-targeting being used by incumbent governments to effect “permanent structural changes” to democracies. 

One way this can be done is through gerrymandering – the redrawing of constituency boundaries – based on psychographic data. 

While election observers and non-incumbent parties would be able to easily observe and cry foul if changes are made along the lines of ethnicity or socio-economic status, this is unlikely to be the case if boundaries are drawn along “unprovable” psychographic lines, Do said. 

WITHER DATA-DRIVEN CAMPAIGNING

With data use in political campaigning heavily under the microscope, are politicians now likely to shrink back from using it? Highly unlikely, Miller said. 

“I can see that there will be nervousness among campaigns now…but no, I can’t see there being a significant withdrawal,” he said, adding that the cost of not using data as part of an election arsenal was “too high”. 

Some in the technology sector, like Apple chief executive Tim Cook, say stronger privacy regulations could prevent social-media user information from being cobbled together for use in campaigning. 

“The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike and every intimate detail of your life – from my own point of view it shouldn’t exist,” Cook was quoted as saying in a forum in Beijing last weekend. 

Sunil, the Indian researcher, said authorities should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 

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Ultimately, mutual consent in data use is crucial.

Facebook on Wednesday said it had kick-started a months-long process to overhaul its privacy settings, making it easier for users to understand what data the company is collecting.

“The analogy we should consider in this instance is sexual activity between two adults. As long as there is consent, every single combination and permutation is absolutely acceptable,” Sunil said. “But if there is no consent, then none is acceptable.”