Last week investigative reports by The New York Times and the Observer revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm, had amassed a massive chunk of Facebook user data for some 50 million people without ever getting their permission. This data was reportedly used to influence voters in the US Presidential elections and Britain’s EU referendum, as Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) worked as part of Donald Trump’s campaign team and the Euro-skeptic Brexit campaign.
But Cambridge Analytica and SCL’s impact was not just limited to the US and Britain. An interesting angle that has emerged from all of this is Cambridge Analytica’s past involvement in Indian elections and their efforts to reach out to the two major political parties in the country, the BJP and the Congress, ahead of the 2019 general elections. And Facebook as a platform also faced some stick from Indian leaders and the Election Commission.
Here’s everything we learned from various news reports this week:
Early reports about SCL’s activities in India
The Hindustan Times first reported that Cambridge Analytica, and its India partner, Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited, have spoken to both the Congress and the BJP for a possible collaboration for their 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns.
Before the whole issue blew up in India’s political circles, allegations did not deter the firm and its India partner from continuing to seek and promote various collaborations.
OBI’s CEO Amrish Tyagi told HT on Monday that social media legislation and regulation was complex and diverse in different jurisdictions. “What may be illegal and unethical in one place may not be in India and vice versa. So it is too early to say anything.” Things have dramatically changed since then.
Who is Amrish Tyagi?
“In 2016, the son of an Indian socialist politician helped a hardcore capitalist win the world’s most powerful office.” That’s how a piece on the Economic Times that profiled and interviewed Amrish Tyagi describes him. The profile, which was written back in November 2017, clearly hasn’t aged well. Especially with recent revelations that paint SCL more as data thief and rather than political wizards.
Amrish Tyagi is the son of JDU leader KC Tyagi, who flew to the US to pitch for Donald Trump’s campaign. The ET article declares that the 39-year-old from Ghaziabad was part of “an elite team put together by big data-led political communication consultancy Cambridge Analytica”.
Despite being the son of a JDU leader Tyagi apparently doesn’t pledge his loyalty to any particular party. Upon being asked how he got into managing campaigns he told ET, “In 2009 when Rajnath Singh was the president of BJP, he contested elections in Ghaziabad, which happens to be my hometown. I was looking after his war-room at the time, social media and all. He won the election and I haven’t left the war-room since.”
Tyagi is now the CEO of Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) Private Limited, a partner of SCL. Tyagi is also a director at SCL’s India offshoot.
SCL’s India offshoot
According to a listing found on opencorporates.com, a database of companies around the world, Strategic Communication Laboratories Private Limited has a registered address in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad near the national capital New Delhi. Listed as its officers/directors are Tyagi, Alexander Oakes (SCL Group founder), Alexander Nix (who has been suspended from SCL after a Channel 4 sting captured footage of him talking about bribing and blackmailing politicians) and Avneesh Rai (more on him below).
This was further corroborated by the Wire which reported that documents from the corporate affairs ministry show Ovleno Business Intelligence (through Amrish Tyagi) and SCL set up and incorporated an India entity in late 2011.
What did SCL India actually do?
SCL’s India partner OBI claimed on its website (which is suspended at the moment) that it has 300 permanent employees and more than 1,400 consulting staff in offices across 10 Indian states.
It offers a range of services in India, among them “political campaign management” which includes social media strategy, election campaign management and mobile media management.
Under social media strategy, it offers services such as “blogger and influence marketing”, “online reputation management” and “daily management of social media accounts”.
On its “Our Clients” page the company claimed to have worked with the BJP, Congress, JDU and even corporate clients like Airtel and ICICI Bank. (Screenshot via the Wire)
Moreover, NDTV reported that the publicly available LinkedIn page of one of the directors of OBI, Himanshu Sharma, stated that he “managed 4 election campaigns successfully for the ruling party BJP” and “achieved the target of Mission 272.” His profile further states that he is “confidentially” maintaining the database of BJP volunteers and supporters. And this database will be provided constituency-wise to BJP candidates as an additional support for national elections and state elections of Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi.
The association with the BJP now stands deleted from Sharma’s LinkedIn profile. (Screenshot of original profile via NDTV)
A case study on Cambridge Analytica website shows how it conducted in-depth electorate analysis for the Bihar Assembly Election in 2010. CA says over 90% of seats targeted were won in Bihar 2010. (Screenshot h/t @therealjpk on Twitter) In that election, BJP won 91 seats. JDU won 115 seats.
Parties volley allegations at each other
On Wednesday, India’s law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said there were “numerous reports” of Congress involvement with Cambridge Analytica and called upon its leader Rahul Gandhi to “explain” the company’s role in his social media outreach. OBI’s website does mention Congress as a client.
The Congress, for its part, hit back saying that it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who used the firm and not them. This is also something that Himanshu Sharma’s now edited LinkedIn profile corroborates.
At one point in his press conference, Prasad pointed out that Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter followers had risen recently and wondered if Cambridge Analytica was responsible for this “fake popularity”. This was a rather bizarre concern coming from the IT minister who probably should be more worried about the country’s digital infrastructure being possibly weaponised by political parties or worse, foreign players.
The Congress Party’s Randeep Surjewala responded to the allegations by pointing out Amrish Tyagi’s involvement in Rajnath Singh’s 2009 campaign and that OBI’s website mentions BJP and its ally JDU as clients. Surjewala though strangely forgets to mention that the same website also lists the Congress party as a client.
While details are thin, it is very likely that both parties have in some form engaged with SCL India and its partner OBI.
SCL India director turns “whistleblower”
Avneesh Rai who listed as a director at SCL India spoke to NDTV alleges that the now-suspended CEO of SCL Alexander Nix may have plotted to defeat the Congress party ahead of India’s 2014 parliamentary elections. Rai told NDTV that Alexander Nix did visit India in 2011, and began talks with him and Amrish Tyagi to extend SCL’s operations into the Indian political scene.
Alexander Nix was allegedly keen to pitch the firm’s services almost solely to the Congress, despite suggestions by the Indian partners to expand their roster of prospective political clients. “One of the plans was to gift a database of 5 Lok Sabha constituencies to Rahul Gandhi, which included Gandhi family pocket boroughs like Amethi and Rae Bareli”, he told the channel.
But something apparently changed along the way. Rai said that he and his team began to question the Nix’s motives. “They helped design a survey questionnaire which appeared to hurt the Congress even though we were pitching for a Congress contract. It relied heavily on questions on scams during the UPA era, even though it was supposed to be a pro-Congress survey”, he said. Rai said he was then told, “we are here to defeat the Congress”.
Rai said his work with SCL ended soon afterwards. The breaking point, he said, was a dispute over where the India data would be stored. He said he wanted it stored in India, with joint access to both the Indian and overseas partners. Alexander Nix, he claimed, disagreed. The client, he was told, wanted it stored in servers in the US.
Despite the splitting with them, Rai remains on the corporate records of SCL India as director. Rai claims that he has not been able to resign since the Indian company was registered by Alexander Nix’s chartered accountant. Since it has not filed returns since inception, its registration has been nullified according to new rules about dormant firms.
Rai’s allegations are yet to be independently verified.
EC to review its relationship with Facebook
According to a report on the Indian Express, the Election Commission has taken a “grim view” of the Facebook data breach and the fact that it was exploited to influence polls across the world. Talking to the newspaper, Chief Election Commissioner O P Rawat indicated that the EC may review its association with the social media giant after the scandal that surfaced last week.
“Something which can affect the election arena in an adverse manner, like public opinion being moulded. this should concern us and we will take a view on this,” Rawat told Express.
The EC has partnered with Facebook on three different occasions in the last year to encourage Facebook users, specifically young people, to register themselves as voters.
In 2017, as part of one such collaborative effort, Facebook sent voter registration reminders in 13 Indian languages to all its users in the country for four days, from July 1 to 4. In November last year, all Facebook users who were going to turn 18, got a “birthday wish” on their birthday along with a reminder encouraging them to register with the EC to vote.
EC’s latest partnership with Facebook was in January this year where the Commission had announced a National Voters’ Day pledge feature on the social media platform.