In the tumultuous months after protests and riots wracked Jakarta, bringing down Indonesian president Haji Muhammad Suharto in May 1998, a British political consultancy arrived on the scene.
SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica (CA), says it came to southeast Asia’s most populous nation at the behest of “pro-democratic groups” to “assist with a national campaign of political reform and democratization.” The country was still reeling from the Asian economic crisis that started in 1997 and the exit of a leader who had held on to power for three decades. The British firm’s assignment eventually included surveying thousands of Indonesians, managing communications for politicians and, most curiously, organizing large rallies at universities to help students “let off steam,” according to company documents accessed by Quartz.
The documents, issued around 2013, also highlight SCL’s role in nearby countries. In Thailand, the company claims to have spent nine months surveying voters before staging an intervention on behalf of multiple political parties.
SCL later morphed into CA, which allegedly used the data of some 50 million Facebook users to influence voters during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Its purported ability to affect large numbers of people seems to have been tested and honed a decade and a half earlier, in the political upheaval of southeast Asia. The documents provide a more detailed—if one-sided—insight into the workings of SCL beyond what former employees like Christopher Wylie have described in interviews and testimonies. In total, SCL claims to have worked on more than 100 election campaigns across 32 countries.
After Suharto’s fall
Amid the violence that marked the aftermath of Suharto’s 1998 resignation, SCL was tasked with managing growing frustration with the new administration of president BJ Habibie. To better understand the sentiment of Indonesia’s 220 million people, spread across 33 provinces, the company rolled out a countrywide survey that had 72,000 respondents. The documents outline the findings:
It was clear from the research that it was the younger “university” age-group that were the principle instigators of the unrest and conversely the older generation were weary of insubordination having been suppressed for so long that they had come to tacitly accept their lot in life. Consequently, it was decided to focus on the 18-25 M/F (male/female) segment of the population and to redirect their frustration away from civil unrest.
SCL then focused its research around secondary schools and local universities, and discovered that the rise in insubordination was partly triggered by the increased presence of police and military troops on the streets. Eventually, it decided to sponsor “organized avenues of protests” to draw in students and keep them away from violent demonstrations. This was apparently done with the cooperation of the Indonesian government, which initially had some misgivings about such large gatherings.
“Large rallies were organised at each university. 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…