Bell Pottinger, the UK public relations firm that handled the Gupta family's alleged propaganda campaign, faces a new controversy, The Times reported on Monday.
The controversy was revealed in an investigation by the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).
The Times reported the following allegations;
- The campaign to defend the Gupta family and its businesses against state capture claims was multinational;
- The campaign was bigger than the apartheid-era Information Scandal;
- A multichannel "media empire" was created that included mainstream, alternative and social media outlets to publicise the Gupta's narrative;
- This network produced at least 220,000 tweets and hundreds of Facebook posts between July 2016 and July 2017.
This weekend, the Financial Times reported that Bell Pottinger's CEO, James Henderson, had resigned. This comes as a report by the Public Relations and Communication Association in the UK is due to be released. The association is deciding whether Bell Pottinger acted unethically in its handling of the Gupta account.
The Times reported on Monday that the Guptas were introduced to Bell Pottinger by arms deal middleman Fana Hlongwane. He is alleged to have been the biggest beneficiary of "commissions" during the arms deal, and was reportedly introduced to Bell Pottinger by the father of Victoria Geoghegan, who handled the Gupta account. She has since been fired.
ANCIR also reported that there was evidence that India and Bell Pottinger in the UK were part of a multinational effort that was behind the Guptas' PR campaign.
Jean Le Roux, dubbed an "internet sleuth", reportedly traced the army of Twitter bots being used by the campaign to enforce its narrative back to India. It was not clear whether Bell Pottinger was part of this campaign, ANCIR reported.
Along with a variety of legitimate and fake news sites, the campaign targeted social media, specifically Twitter.
ANCIR reported that the fake news campaign generated 220,431 tweets between July 2016 and July 2017. Those involved reportedly authored 4,849 tweets which were retweeted 215,582 times by the automated arm of the campaign.
There were 3,574 Facebook posts which attracted 6,713 comments and 28,121 likes. The posts were shared 8,256 times.
Some of the accounts used in the campaign appear to have been created manually, while others appeared to have been hired via the international black market.