The parent company of British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica (CA) may have been operating in South-east Asia as far back as two decades ago, managing civil unrest in Indonesia and paving the way for Thaksin Shinawatra to take power in Thailand, news website Quartz has reported.
British political consultancy SCL Group claims to have arrived in Indonesia after president Suharto was brought down in 1998, according to company documents issued around 2013 that were accessed by Quartz.
SCL eventually became CA, which is now alleged to have used the data of 50 million Facebook users to influence voters during Mr Donald Trump's 2016 United States presidential campaign.
SCL said it began operating in Indonesia at the request of "pro-democratic groups" to "assist with a national campaign of political reform and democratisation" in a country reeling from the Asian economic crisis, as well as the loss of a leader who had been in power for over 30 years, the Quartz report said. Quartz is owned by Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal and Government Executive.
In total, SCL claims to have worked on more than 100 election campaigns across 32 countries, Quartz reported. Previous media reports say these included claims that it had helped political parties in Malaysia, India, Kenya and Brazil.
INDONESIA CIVIL UNREST
In Indonesia, according to the SCL documents, the firm went on to survey thousands of Indonesians, manage communications for politicians and even organise large rallies at universities to help students "let off steam".
SCL said it was tasked with managing growing frustration with the new administration of president B.J. Habibie and surveyed 72,000 of the country's 220 million people.
In Indonesia in 1998, SCL said it decided to sponsor "organised avenues of protests" to draw in students and keep them away from violent demonstrations. But Indonesia expert Ian Wilson of Australia's Murdoch University said claims that SCL helped to curb violence were an "exaggeration".
The documents seen by Quartz show that the younger "university" age group mainly instigated the unrest, while the older generation was wary of insubordination, having been suppressed for so long.
SCL decided to focus on 18-to 25-year-old Indonesians and direct their frustration away from civil unrest. Research in schools and universities found many of them were unhappy about the increased police and military presence on the streets.
SCL made the decision to sponsor "organised avenues of protests" to draw in students and keep them away from violent demonstrations - apparently with the cooperation of the Indonesian government.
"This was achieved by establishing a rally committee and financing activities and coverage across the country," the SCL documents said.
"The events were so large that there was a general feeling among students that their voice really had been heard."
SCL claims its methods dramatically reduced civil unrest and convinced then President Habibie to step down, leading to the 1999 polls that brought Mr Abdurrahman Wahid to power. The documents, Quartz said, indicate SCL ran the election campaign of Mr Abdurrahman's National Awakening Party.
Indonesia expert Ian Wilson, a lecturer at Australia's Murdoch University, said claims that SCL helped to curb violence were an "exaggeration".
"It would have been, at most, one small element among all that were taking place at the time," he told Quartz. "The forces and interests at play and jostling for influence were simply on too big a scale to have been influenced significantly in such a way."
THAI ELECTION DATA
The SCL documents say the company entered Thailand some time before the 2001 elections that saw telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra taking power.
SCL was tasked with gauging the scale of vote-buying behaviour that had inflated the cost of an election campaign to an estimated US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion).
"Vote buying had become so endemic that an entire industry of dealers had emerged to broker the voter groups and funders," the documents said, as quoted by Quartz.
"It was quite commonplace for voters to sell their votes twice - and then not vote at all!"
SCL claimed to have employed more than 1,200 staff who collected data from over nine months and found that in half of the constituencies, vote buying did not impact the electoral result, a discovery that the company claimed was worth US$250 million alone.
However, in the other constituencies "a more direct behavioural intervention was required", which the SCL papers suggested could involve "social pressure, economic penalties, legal framework and enhanced monitoring".
SCL said it intervened for six months, apparently with "the cooperation of most of the major political parties", and Thaksin went on to win the 2001 election.
Thailand expert and University of Leeds professor Duncan McCargo told Quartz: "There's no doubt that some Thai political parties have commissioned international consultants to work on improving their electability, and this was certainly the case for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party in 2001."
He was sceptical, however, that different parties could have supported a project to stop vote buying. "The 1997 Constitution included various provisions designed to combat and reduce vote buying," he explained. "There was broad popular support for these changes, though I can't say that translates to 'cross-party' support."
Quartz said it had contacted CA and SCL for comment.