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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

YouGov 'played role in Kurdistan independence referendum'

The polling company is reported to have created pro-independence social media content for voters in Kirkuk

International polling company YouGov reportedly played a role in the failed 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum. EPA 
International polling company YouGov reportedly played a role in the failed 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum. EPA 

International pollsters YouGov orchestrated a pro-independence campaign in the failed Kurdish referendum by creating social media content targeting voters in the disputed oil region of Kirkuk.

The company gathered information about voters in the Kirkuk area and created pro-independence material for Facebook distribution that focused around security fears, the Daily Telegraph reported citing evidence from unnamed whistleblowers.

Video content created by YouGov on a Facebook page called “Naam Kirkuk” reportedly criticised the Iraqi military and lauded the efforts of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces.

More than 90 per cent of voters backed independence from Iraq in the September 2017 referendum, although it was rejected as illegitimate by the Iraqi government.

A diplomatic crisis ensued between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish Regional government which led to a conflict in which Iraqi forces retook the Kirkuk oilfields.

YouGov has been accused by one of the whistleblowers of conducting a marketing campaign without revealing the true sponsors of it.

The firm, which is headquartered in Britain, said on Thursday that the work it carried out in Kurdistan was “standard market research conducted face-to-face”.

“Campaign consultancy is standard practice in any democracy,” said Stefan Kaszubowski, Global Head of Custom Research at YouGov.

“YouGov champions the ethical use of data in compliance with GDPR. We have never collected or used personal data without the explicit permission of participants. YouGov adheres to the highest ethical standards and the research was conducted in line with industry best practice.”

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an EU regulation on data privacy, which came into force after the Kurdistan referendum.

Nadhim Zahawi, a British-Iraqi MP, co-founded YouGov. Alamy
Nadhim Zahawi, a British-Iraqi MP, co-founded YouGov. Alamy

YouGov was founded in 2000 in the UK by Iraqi-born British MP Nadhim Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare. The company now operates in Europe, North America, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

Mr Zahawi, who was born to Kurdish parents and fled to Britain to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime as a child, served as YouGov’s CEO until he became an MP in 2010.

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He still owned shares in the company during the Kurdistan referendum and was director of Zahawi and Zahawi, a consultancy firm with YouGov as one of its clients.

Now a minister in the ruling Conservative Party government, he previously combined his work as an MP with a controversial adviser role at troubled Kurdish oil firm Gulf Keystone for which he earned almost £30,000 (Dh148,970) a month.

The oil and gas company saw its shares collapse by more than 99 per cent since 2012 as a result of high debt and the increasingly difficult geopolitical situation in the region.

The 51-year-old’s significant salary had been a source of anger among shareholders until he stepped down from the role in January upon taking up ministerial responsibilities.

The National has contacted Mr Zahawi for comment.