YouGov bid to influence Iraq vote uncovered

The polling company YouGov secretly created material for social media as part of a controversial political campaign in Iraq last year, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.
YouGov’s political work in Iraq ­included gathering information about voters and creating content for Facebook that promoted independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, according to evidence provided to The Telegraph by whistleblowers.
The material created by YouGov ­includes videos that play on fears about security, criticise the Iraqi military and praise the Kurdish armed forces, known as the Peshmerga.
Content was created for a Facebook page called Naam Kirkuk, which ­appealed to voters in the governorate of Kirkuk, a disputed oil region that is claimed by both federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the run-up to the referendum, the page frequently posted messages attacking Iraq’s central government with statements like: “Baghdad neglected Kirkuk … Kurdistan is the one who came to help us.”
It also told voters that the referendum would give Kirkuk “the opportunity to choose between being a small part of a failed country, or a great city in a new and secure homeland”.
YouGov bid to influence Iraq vote uncovered

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags at a rally ahead of the Independence referendum last year

The independence vote was held on Sept 25 2017, with more than 90pc of participants voting for independence. It was described as illegal and unconstitutional by Baghdad and led to military clashes.
YouGov employees that worked on the referendum campaign were ­required to sign non-disclosure agreements and forbidden from connecting YouGov with the content published on the Facebook pages.
One of the whistleblowers said the Facebook page was an example of ­“Astroturfing”, a term used to describe a public relations campaign that is presented as being disconnected from the organisation funding it. YouGov ­declined to give details about its clients or political operations in Iraq.
Stefan Kaszubowski, global head of custom research at YouGov, said: “We have been working across the Middle East – including Iraq – since 2005, ­always with the same high level of ­accuracy and objectivity in polling and consultancy as we do in many other countries throughout the world. As is the case for all polling companies in all markets, we cannot talk publicly about client work.”
The latest revelations about YouGov’s attempt to influence voting in Iraq comes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which
voters were targeted with Facebook content in an effort to influence opinions ahead of elections.
Cambridge Analytica worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump, targeting US voters with political adverts tailored to their psychological profile.
The company also worked on the Nigerian presidential election in 2015, distributing a graphically violent video on Facebook that implied ­Muhammadu Buhari, one of the candidates running for election, was linked to Islamist groups.
Polling companies, including YouGov, Survation and ICM, have also recently come under fire from MPs in the UK after they sold poll results to hedge funds ahead of the Brexit referendum, potentially allowing the funds to make millions by betting against the pound.
Over recent years YouGov has ­attempted to transform itself from an online polling company to a consultancy and data analytics company and has created a database, which it boasts is the “largest daily updated record of people’s habits and opinions in existence”.
YouGov’s work on the Kurdish campaign for independence raises questions for Nadhim Zahawi, one of the company’s founders and the current parliamentary under secretary of state for children and families.
Mr Zahawi was chief executive of YouGov until February 2010, and while YouGov was working on the Kurdish independence political campaign Mr Zahawi still owned shares in the company, according to Parliament’s Register of Members’ Interests.
At the time he was also director of Zahawi and Zahawi, a company that counts YouGov among its clients.
Mr Zahawi is currently the MP for Stratford-on-Avon and co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan.
Ahead of the referendum, Mr Zahawi also received a monthly salary of ­almost ?30,000 from Gulf Keystone Petroleum, an oil and gas company that is focused on the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Its shares dropped from a high of more than ?182 in 2012 to less than ?1.40 at the beginning of 2017. It is thought that the company could have benefited if Iraqi Kurdistan had successfully achieved independence.
Mr Zahawi declined to comment.
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