Editorial: Stop the digital dark arts

What really stands out from the Cambridge Analytica revelations is not the fact that a shadowy British consultancy has been using dirty tricks to influence elections and democracy, including in Africa. This must be condemned, of course, but it is also nothing especially new. On this continent, we are all too familiar with the long and shameful history of Western companies and countries meddling in our politics, often with disastrous results.

But given this track record, we thought we were familiar with all those dirty tricks. We knew how politicians were bought; we knew the mechanics of vote rigging. And, more importantly, we knew how to combat these tactics, starting with a vibrant civil society, a free media and a commitment to transparency. But the dirty tricks employed by Cambridge Analytica, as exposed in the United Kingdom by Channel 4 and The Guardian, represent an entirely new threat. Of particular concern is how the firm uses data profiling — a still little-understood science — to sway popular opinion. This distorts public debates beyond any recognition. These are 21st-century subterfuges for digital-era democracy — and democracy’s defenders cannot risk being left behind.

Not all is lost, however. In South Africa, we already have one example of how concerted civil society action can foil the digital dark arts. Bell Pottinger wanted to provoke racial tensions to deflect attention from its clients, the Guptas. But after its involvement was uncovered by South African journalists and thanks to strong advocacy from civil society both here and in the UK, Bell Pottinger is now bankrupt.

Bell Pottinger, Cambridge Analytica and their ilk can and must be stopped. Luckily, we know how to do it — starting with a vibrant civil society, a free media and a relentless commitment to transparency and basic rights.

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