Firm in data scandal tied to Duterte's election win

Reports say Facebook data on 1.2m Filipino users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica

A 2015 photo showing (from left) Mr Joel Egco, Cambridge Analytica's Mr Alexander Nix, Mr Jose Gabriel La Vina and Mr Peter La Vina, who were part of the Duterte campaign team, and lawyer Taipan Millan.
A 2015 photo showing (from left) Mr Joel Egco, Cambridge Analytica's Mr Alexander Nix, Mr Jose Gabriel La Vina and Mr Peter La Vina, who were part of the Duterte campaign team, and lawyer Taipan Millan.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/PETER TIU LAVINA

The British firm at the centre of a data mining scandal linked to the 2016 United States presidential race harvested information on about 1.2 million Filipino Facebook users to help elect Mr Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, according to media reports.

A post last week from Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said the data may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.

The political consultancy hired by the Trump campaign is accused of siphoning information on 87 million Facebook users and using it to target political messages.

Outside the US, the largest amount of data to go to Cambridge Analytica came from the Philippines.

The South China Morning Post said the consultancy's parent firm, Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), boasted that it helped get Mr Duterte elected by rebranding him from being "kind and honourable" to a tough crime fighter.

"In the run-up to the election, the client was widely perceived as both kind and honourable, qualities his campaign team thought were potentially election-winning," SCL said in a post that it has since removed from its website.

"But SCL's research showed that many groups... were more likely to be swayed by qualities such as toughness and decisiveness. SCL used the issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action."

Mr Duterte defeated four other candidates, largely on a promise to eradicate crime and corruption.

A 2015 photo of two of Mr Duterte's key campaign officials - Mr Jose Gabriel La Vina, who was social media director, and his cousin Peter La Vina, who was a spokesman - dining with Mr Alexander Nix, who at the time ran Cambridge Analytica, has also surfaced.

Cambridge Analytica suspended Mr Nix last month after a TV broadcast in which he was recorded suggesting his outfit had used seduction and bribery to entrap politicians and influence elections.

The two officials from Mr Duterte's campaign yesterday denied having had business dealings with Mr Nix. Mr Jose Gabriel La Vina told news site Rappler that while he recalled meeting Mr Nix at a forum organised by the National Press Club, "we couldn't afford a consultant like him".

But he admitted that Mr Nix's presentation during the forum influenced his work. "I picked up on the idea of elections being driven by emotions, and also that was what was happening on the Facebook battlefield," he told Rappler.

Mr Joel Egco, a former journalist who is now undersecretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office, was also in the photo. He told The Straits Times that while he saw Mr Nix exchanging pleasantries with the La Vinas, the three hardly talked.

Mr Duterte's political party was known to have hired strategists who helped him transform his modest online presence, creating an army of Facebook personalities and bloggers worldwide.

An Internet security consultant said the Facebook data culled by Cambridge Analytica "could've told the Duterte campaign exactly whether they were winning or losing".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2018, with the headline 'Firm in data scandal tied to Duterte's election win'. Print Edition | Subscribe