The company that created the CR17 brand online — and was instrumental in influencing more than 4 700 ANC delegates back in December 2017 — was paid millions of rands from Linkd Environmental Services.
The campaign’s leaked bank statements show that a total of 20 payments were made from Linkd Environmental Services to the company — The Behaviour Change Agency.
Payments amounted to R3.6-million, with the last made almost a year after President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected by a slim margin as the leader of the ANC in 2017.
“The behaviour we sought was to get ANC delegates to return to the core values of the ANC and vote for president Cyril Ramaphosa who represents these values,” says Pat Govender, founder of The Behaviour Change Agency.
Although the payments were secret until recently, the agency seems proud of its campaign for the now president, sharing the details on its website.
It says it used behavioural data analysis and social media to influence millions of people, and that it reached more than 21-million people. “We knew that a single online campaign cannot win an election all by itself. We recruited an army of online supporters and ANC members.”
The company focused its efforts on ANC delegates who would choose the next president, asking them to register for a newsletter and using their details to push CR17 content. The company boasts that it generated more than 1.1-million social media engagements.
In its promotional video on the campaign, the agency says that in the run-up to the ANC’s 2017 elective conference, it recruited an “army of online supporters” and built a database of 58% of ANC delegates.
This comes at a time when the use of social media channels to distribute targeted information and obtain user data has become increasingly controversial. Companies, such as Cambridge Analytica, have been in the spotlight for its unethical means of collecting user data to allegedly manipulate voters via targeted advertising.
The recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack detailed the connections between Cambridge Analytica, the US election of Donald Trump, as well as the Brexit vote.
But Govender says their goal wasn’t sinister. Rather, the company wanted to ensure that members who participated in the online campaigns received the truth about Ramaphosa and not “fake news”.
The company’s promotional video shows texts sent to “comrades” encouraging them to sign up for the newsletter.
Users were then asked to submit their ANC membership numbers to verify whether they, in fact, were official members.
Govender, however, maintains that the agency did not use the ANC’s database. He says that they developed a database by driving subscriptions to the newsletter.
“All online communication was clearly identified as coming from the CR17 campaign and those users had a choice to opt-out whenever a recipient wanted to,” says Govender.
The company was also contracted by another agency, the Avatar Agency, to develop the MyANC mobile app in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
The Cape Town agency’s clients are diverse and range from CR17 and Eskom to the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Old Mutual. — Jacques Coetzee
Jacques Coetzee is the Adamela Data Fellow at the Mail & Guardian, funded by the Indigo Trust