How Cambridge Analytica honed its skills in ASEAN’s politics

Asean National Flags in JakartaPhoto: Gunawan Kartapranata

Cambridge Analytica and its parent company have been operating in ASEAN since 1998. What influence have they had and were all their activities legal?


The US is busy unravelling Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) involvement in the US election. Startling revelations allege the company gathered data on 50 million Facebook users. It then used this data to influence key segments of the population in the run-up to the 2016 election. There is evidence to suggest that CA honed its skills on ASEAN’s political landscape.

What do we know?

In 1998, SCL Group, the parent company of CA, arrived in Indonesia. Suharto’s government had just collapsed. SCL claims Indonesian pro-democracy groups contracted the firm to assist with political reform.

The British company’s responsibilities allegedly involved surveying the Indonesian public. It also organised rallies at universities to direct youth frustration away from unrest. The organised protests gave students an outlet. It let them believe the government had heard their voices. They, therefore, had a reduced appetite for public disobedience.

SCL also had a hand in Wahid’s election campaign. Wahid himself stated, “I am indebted to SCL for their strategic management of my election success.”

SCL was also active in Thailand. It assessed the scale of vote-buying across Thailand before the 2001 election. It had around 1,200 staff members working on the project.

In Malaysia, SCL and CA’s involvement has been less clear-cut. On CA’s website, the company claims it provided services for Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 2013 election. It claims it helped the party secure victory in the marginal Kedah province. BN leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied the claims BN contracted the firm.

Even if Barisan Nasional did not contract the firm, individuals might have. Mukhriz Mahathir’s former press secretary Azrin Zizal claimed Mukhriz employed CA ahead of the general election.

How effective was the group in Southeast Asia?

Although SCL and CA were active in ASEAN, their effectiveness in the region is not clear. Wahid’s government failed to stabilise Indonesia, despite SCL’s activity. This would suggest that the company was ineffective in its services at the time.

In Malaysia, however, the companies had a larger influence. BN won an extra six seats in Kedah in 2013, a feat Azrin Zizal attributes to CA’s involvement.

In Thailand, SCL also had a strong impact. It highlighted 91 constituencies where vote-buying made a significant difference to elections. In cooperation with the major parties, SCL implemented a plan to tackle vote-buying. It claims it was able to reduce vote-buying by 31% across Thailand.

The companies conduct has not broken any laws

SCL and CA’s involvement in Southeast Asian politics has not broken any laws. Data-driven campaigning is permitted in politics in both Southeast Asia and the West.

CA and SCL may have breached Facebook’s code of practice. But unless the companies mined sensitive data, there will be no legal ramifications.

It may be legal, but it is dangerous

There may be no laws violated, but CA and SCL’s practices have dangerous social ramifications. The companies may have collected extensive psychographic data on individuals. Politicians can “micro-target” specific psychographic profiles with certain campaign messages. They can also build profiles on demographics which support and oppose certain policies.

Micro-targeting demographics with a customised message could lead to polarisation. In Indonesia ethnicity is closely intertwined with politics. Customised political messages to certain ethnicities could stoke ethnic tensions.

Social media penetration is now high in many ASEAN nations. Over 50% of the population in most nations are active on Facebook. This opens up a large percentage of the population to political coercion and control. It could have wide-reaching consequences across large segments of the population.

 Sources: Statista, Worldometers

Access to voter psychographic data is a valuable tool for gerrymandering. Mapping electoral districts by voter patterns and policy stances would benefit incumbent governments. It could make it almost impossible for an opposition party to unseat an incumbent.

Data mining is unlikely to end any time soon

Indonesian Communications Minister Rudiantara said he will close Facebook if CA used it to harvest Indonesians personal data. He said in an interview, “if I have to shut them down, I will do it”.

However, the Indonesian government may not follow through with the threat. Data mining has changed the nature of political elections. It is too powerful a tool to dismiss. Asia is also a fertile ground. Social media penetration is occurring faster than privacy laws can keep up.

There are also positive aspects to CA and SCL’s activities. Thailand is a case in point, where they reduced the occurrence of vote-buying. Data mining can be used in a way to promote democracy. But there must be safeguards in place to stop its use in an anti-democratic and polarising way.

Without these safeguards, the democratic integrity of the whole region is at risk. The people will no longer influence the politicians. The politicians will manipulate and mould the people through micro-targeting and gerrymandering. What could be a valuable democratic tool, will ruin ASEAN democracy.