By SIR RONALD SANDERS
BEFORE getting into the thrust of the serious and threatening matter that lies at the heart of this commentary, I declare that I was an integral part of the management of the campaign of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) for the March 21 General Election, and I managed its communications campaign.
It is well-known now that the ABLP won 15 of the 17 parliamentary seats, losing 1 to the United Progressive Party (UPP) and failing to keep the Barbuda seat from falling into the hands of the Barbuda Peoples’ Movement (BPM).
The victory was the result of confidence in the competence of Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, to continue to grow the economy; implement close to US$3 billion in public sector and private sector investments over the next five years; create thousands of new jobs; and improve the quality of life generally. It was also achieved by a widespread belief, evident in the results of the election, that the candidates of the UPP had neither the competence nor the experience to satisfactorily deliver the social and economic improvements that the electorate expect. The UPP had only three persons with any experience in government and two of them were regarded as key players in the decline of the economy between 2008 and 2014 when the party served as the government.
I mention the above only by way of providing context. The real purpose of this commentary is to point out and emphasise the interference in the elections in Antigua and Barbuda and in other Caribbean countries by external forces with an interest in achieving their own ends.
The presence of external influences, particularly the now notorious SCL Group and its subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica, became obvious in the last two weeks of the Antigua and Barbuda campaign when deliberately false articles began appearing on internet blog sites, written by persons who had not previously scribbled one word about Antigua and Barbuda.
The false information about Prime Minister Gaston Browne, spread on the eve of the election, had the potential for materially affecting the election result had it not been rebutted swiftly and convincingly.
The evidence of an orchestrated campaign was the fact that the articles were promoted on the website of the UPP and on social media at a cost of thousands of US dollars. The final proof was the appearance on the UPP radio station of one of these bloggers, Monte Friesner, to promote the false information he had published on his website. Freisner and others were obviously compensated for trafficking the fake news that they manufactured.
The issue, however, is not about Friesner and other hired guns; it is about the persons and organisations behind them. Facebook has now banned Cambridge Analytica from its pages for abuse of its rules. It was clear in the campaign for the March 21 Antigua and Barbuda general election groups like SLC and Cambridge Analytica were hired by firms with a vested interest in controlling the country’s Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP). The objective was to ensure that the Gaston Browne-led government did not return to office since, as with other cases, it had refused to allow enterprises to operate in ways that deprive the national treasury of revenues.
If Antigua and Barbuda did not have snap elections and a very short campaign, it is likely that external forces might have succeeded in influencing the election’s result. There would have been no way in which the ABLP would have been able to counter the expensive tactics of these rich organisations.
SCL is the prime suspect as the organisation hired to carry out the objectives of external agencies. It has operated secretly in the Caribbean for many years.
The news portal, Caribbean News Now, has documented its activities which include:
• The 2009 election in Dominica where it was hired to manage the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) campaign. Someone other than the UWP paid the US$1.5m invoice from SCL;
• In Saint Lucia, in 2011, SCL offered to help run the government’s re-election campaign for free, in return for $1.9m project after the government was re-elected;
• In St Kitts-Nevis, SCL managed the successful campaign of the Labour Party, and the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a story on March 22 (2018), revealing an SLC sting operation against the then leader of the opposition on behalf of the St Kitts Labour Party;
• In 2004/5, SLC was also active in St Vincent and the Grenadines against Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and they returned in 2009 to help torpedo a referendum on constitutional reform.
SLC was also evident in Trinidad and Tobago, acting for persons in the United National Congress Party, and in the 2013 general elections in Barbados where it claims to have worked for the Democratic Labour Party. Alexander Nix, the now suspended chief executive of SLC’s subsidiary Cambridge Analytica, was known to operate in the Caribbean.
According to the British Daily Mail newspaper, the SCL Group reportedly claimed in a case study that they are skilled enough to launch a “sophisticated campaign of mass deception” to hoodwink the population. Nix is also reported to have told covert reporters that “we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape”. SCL bragged that the campaign of dirty tricks was so successful that “it’s unattributable, untrackable”.
In the case of the recent general elections in Antigua and Barbuda, a great deal of effort and resources had to be devoted to exposing and refuting false information fed to the public on social media and on internet blog sites, such as the one operated by Monte Friesner.
It is clear that external forces, intent on achieving their own objectives, have been operating in the Caribbean for some time using the Internet and social media to condition opinion through the manufacturing and distribution of false information.
However, they could not succeed without the collusion of political parties which, in their own desire to attain power, engage them for such nefarious activity. It is a frightening and worrying development that should be curbed quickly or democracy in the region will be undermined and, unsuspecting Caribbean electorates, will be the victims.
• Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com
The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.