Pandora Papers Astroturfing

It’s been a month since the Pandora Papers story broke, drawing from a trove of 11.6 million documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), laying bare “the global entanglement of political power and secretive offshore finance”. For nearly two years, ICIJ organized and led an investigation examining 2.94 TB of data, encompassing more than 600 journalists in 117 countries and territories – the largest collaborative investigation in journalism history. The family of President Uhuru Kenyatta was implicated in the investigation.

But you wouldn’t know that from the muted response of the mainstream media in Kenya, which was curiously silent for the first 24 hours, creating a vacuum that was quickly filled by a counternarrative disinformation campaign on Twitter that worked to distract from the story, discredit its validity, and diminish its impact. Mozilla Fellows Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo studied the sentiments on social media, particularly Twitter, in the wake of the Pandora Papers exposé, and found that although public sentiment on Twitter “was at first critical of Kenyatta, an alternative sentiment quickly emerged, supporting the president and his offshore accounts.” 

It was “Pandora Paper astroturfing” –  a sophisticated and coordinated campaign of fake accounts, artificial hashtags, and well-paid disinformation influencers, designed to look like ordinary Kenyans were supportive of offshore accounts and of the notion that nothing wrong had been done. By this time, the mainstream media’s initial coverage of the story was to highlight a 139-word press release coming from State House that was mostly a word salad promising a more comprehensive statement at a later date

I spoke to John-Allan Namu, co-founder of Africa Uncensored this week, to find out how he was processing the public and media response to the Pandora Papers leaks. He was categorical – that mainstream media was missing the point by amplifying State House’s position first, and then conforming with the narratives set by the highly sophisticated disinformation campaign. I’m going to quote him verbatim, I was typing furiously as we spoke on the phone. 

“The point isn’t whether offshore accounts are legal or not, nor that our investigation didn’t ‘prove’ that the Kenyatta’s had stolen public funds. It is that we now have evidence that a sitting head of state has used financial vehicles to obscure the ownership of assets connected to him, the same vehicles that have been used by the world’s criminal elite and kleptocrats to hide their wealth. Why the secrecy? Why do the Kenyatta’s have to go through three separate layers of firms, with nominee directors and convoluted structures, in high secrecy jurisdictions? What benefit is there in this? Those are the questions that the big media houses are not asking, and [their silence] bewilders me. In the weeks after the story came out, I felt like I was left alone twisting in the wind.

“I feel like people are being deliberately obtuse about this whole story. The President said he would respond comprehensively when he got back from the international trip he was on. This is a promise he made at a UN meeting, so arguably, in front of the world. He’s been back for a while now, but who’s asking for that response? If [Africa Uncensored] alone has to do the follow-up alone, we end up sounding shrill and bitter, like we have a personal axe to grind with the President’s family, and we don’t. It’s that this is the biggest story of the year.

If you’re an editor for a Kenyan mainstream media house reading this, make that call and follow this up. It’s the least you can do to atone for that initial and grievous sin of omission.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: The Whiteness of AI, by Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal. This article highlights the often unnoticed and unremarked-upon fact that intelligent machines are predominantly conceived and portrayed as White – with serious political and social consequences.
  • What We’re Watching: The Letter, directed by Maia Lekow and Christopher King. A documentary film examining how accusations of witchcraft on elderly women tear apart families, the film “offers a poignant study into the meaning of family in the age of the individual, and the fragility of our relationships with those from which we came.”
  • What We’re Listening To: Shujaa Stories: 21 Superheroes of Kenya. Recorded last year by our friends Semabox and featuring Sitawa Namwalie, this audio series tells the story of renowned heroes from pre-independent Kenya who fought for their communities’ land, freedom, and spiritual well-being; and they are revered by their communities to this day. It’s beautifully illustrated too. 

As always,
Christine Mungai
Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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