MANILA (3rd UPDATE) - A campaign supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte denied dealings with the head of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica after their photograph from nearly three years ago surfaced in a newspaper report on Monday.
Five people were in the picture published by the South China Morning Post: Alexander Nix, then board director of Cambridge Analytica parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), cousins Peter Laviña and Jose Gabriel "Pompee" La Viña, then National Press Club president Joel Sy Egco, and Taipan Millan, identified in the report as a family friend of the Dutertes.
The photo, according to the SCMP report, was taken at a National Press Club event in Manila in May 2015, one year before Duterte's landslide election victory.
Facebook admitted last week that 1.2 million Filipinos were among 87 million users whose data was "improperly shared" by Cambridge Analytica.
The privacy scandal raised concerns over the security of data shared on the world's largest social network, and whether it can be used to influence elections.
Nix was suspended as Cambridge Analytica CEO after the data privacy scandal broke.
Pompee La Viña, who served under Duterte as Social Security System commissioner, said the SMCP's report that they "dined" with Nix was "not entirely accurate."
The NPC served lunch to all its guests during the event on May 14, 2015 and it was Nix who sat down with their group, La Viña said, adding his cousin, Peter Laviña, had the group's photo taken and posted it on the latter's Facebook account.
"I have not met, talked to, communicated with nor otherwise been in contact with Mr. Nix since that day," La Viña said.
"In fact, I had totally forgotten his name and did not realize he was the man associated with Cambridge Analytica until Ms. Robles pointed this out," he said, referring to journalist Raissa Robles, who wrote the SCMP report.
The NPC gathering was an "open and public event" that was even carried by a television news report, La Viña said.
Foreign "intervention" is a criminal offense under Philippine election laws and offenders can be held liable if the offense is committed during the campaign period, according to the report. The campaign period for national posts starts 90 days before election day.
La Viña said he attended the NPC event to "strengthen" relationships with "traditional media" while his cousin wanted to renew his NPC membership.
Egco, who now works in government as communications undersecretary, dismissed speculation that the 2015 meeting at the NPC was related to Duterte's candidacy.
"What I’m telling now is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The only role that I had back then was to write the story because a lot of people were guesting in the press forum," Egco told ANC.
"That was the first and last time that I met Nix. Other than that, no more," he said. "I didn’t hear of him until recently."
Egco said the lunch at the NPC was also the first time he met the La Viña cousins.
"I have nothing to fear. I have nothing to hide," he said.
LUNCH WITH NIX
Istratehiya President Jed Eva III, meanwhile, denied that the company was an affiliate or partner of the SCL Group or Cambridge Analytica.
In a statement, Eva confirmed that Istratehiya Chairman Atty. Taipan Millan met SCL Group executive Alexander Nix during the latter's talk at the NPC in 2015.
He said the 2 firms "exchanged notes, with the SCL Group bringing to the table knowledge and experience gleaned from campaigns around the world, and the firm contributing its familiarity with Philippine socio-political dynamics."
"Simply put, we wanted to learn from them, and they wanted to learn from us," he said.
However, he said SCL and Istratehiya never got to work on anything together.
He also pointed out that Istratehiya and its executives were not part of the campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte.
"While Istratehiya Chairman Atty. Taipan Millan hails from Davao, he was not, at any point, part of the the President's campaign," he said.
He also debunked reports that SCL identified Istratehiya as one of its partners in its website.
"When we were informed a while back that our firm name and one of our old office addresses was on the SCL website, we requested them to remove it, but apparently they did not. It is only very recently that it came to our attention that our company name and old office address were still there, and that they even got the spelling of our company name wrong," he said.
News website Quartz reported last week that SCL helped re-brand a candidate in the Philippines into a "strong, no-nonsense man of action," citing documents "from around 2013." It did not identify the candidate.
ROXAS, POE CAMPS REACT
Barry Gutierrez, the campaign spokesman of Duterte’s closest rival, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, said their camp did not avail of SCL's services.
He said the Roxas campaign did not acknowledge social media at the time as a key battleground in the elections, something he said has changed since Duterte entered the picture and won by about 16 million votes.
"Our social media campaign was very nominal. We had social media but it was not prioritized. Most of the resources were really channeled towards the grassroots organizations," Gutierrez told ABS-CBN News.
Gutierrez said that even during the campaign, he was already "disturbed" by the strategy used by the Duterte camp in social media.
"Sa akin kasi, dagdag na lang na kwento na meron silang apparent leanings with SCL and Alexander Nix and by extension, Cambridge Analytica," he said.
(To me, talk that they had apparent dealings with SCL and Alexander Nix, and by extension, Cambridge Analytica, just adds to the story.)
"Even during the campaign, even without knowing who they were dealing with, who supposedly was behind the strategy nila sa social media, medyo na-disturb na ako sa kanilang approach (I was quite disturbed by their approach)."
Gutierrez said people involved in the electoral campaign of the President must come clean about the issue.
The camp of Senator Grace Poe, who came in third in the presidential race, also said SCL did not offer its services to their campaign team.
Poe’s chief of staff Angelo Buenviaje said the senator’s campaign on social media “was steered by a motley crew of supporters and volunteers.”
“Social media was used to communicate our platform, advocacies, views on issues and mainly, to interact with the public,” Buenviaje added.
“If an investigation is to be conducted to find out the extent of the breach and if such involved the unwarranted use of private information of FB users, it is best left to the Comelec together with the Data Privacy Commission, the NBI Cybersecurity Unit, and an independent organization advocating transparency and accountability," Buenviaje said.