Lord Bell confirms SA links to Gupta propaganda site Voetsekblog

New Yorker report says idea for site came from Jonathan Lehrle

Lord Bell confirms SA links to Gupta propaganda site Voetsekblog

The controversial Gupta-linked misinformation website, Voetsekblog.co.za, has at last been conclusively linked to Bell Pottinger through its work for the Gupta family.

This comes after Lord Bell, the former chairperson of the embattled public relations agency, sat down with the New Yorker's Ed Caesar (see full article).

The interview provides a peek under the hood of the scuppered PR agency's work for the Guptas. For example, Bell Pottinger arranged an interview between journalist Stephen Grootes and Ajay Gupta as part of a front-foot campaign to counteract negative press about the family.

A portion of the shelved interview was later leaked on YouTube, under the code name Bell Pottinger staff used: Project Biltong.

Caesar's interview reveals that a South African-born publicist, Jonathan Lehrle, pitched the idea for the Voetsekblog website. It was also accompanied by a Facebook page and Twitter account used to disseminate articles and cartoons posted on the website.

He also authored a document in March 2016 in which he proposed creating a blog containing "emotive language" and "powerful imagery".

Caesar claims that a report commissioned from law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found that some of these cartoons were created by The New Age, a newspaper company owned by the Guptas until it was sold to Mzwanele Manyi in August 2017.

A transcript of a conversation between James Henderson, Bell Pottinger's then chief executive, and Victoria Geoghegan, a key executive in the Oakbay account, shows that Henderson only learned of Bell Pottinger's involvement in the website as they were handing over documents to lawyers. This legal review was instituted to put a brake on the PR firm's eroding public image.

Caesar notes that during the conversation, Henderson exclaimed: "The whole site is racially motivated. We've denied that we did this!"

Voetsekblog was one of several websites linking back to the Gupta family and their businesses. Operated as faceless, anonymous mouthpieces, these websites sought to shift the discourse in favour of the Gupta family and their businesses.

Whereas Voetsekblog is now confirmed as being operated by Bell Pottinger, other websites were apparently operated by Gupta staffers themselves. Documents contained in the GuptaLeaks hinted that Bell Pottinger was unaware, and even annoyed, at some of the Gupta staff members' own attempts at public relations.

These websites, such as the now defunct thetruthbyconnormeade.co.za and wmcleaks.com websites, promoted the innocence of the Gupta family and painted them as martyrs for radical economic transformation on the pyre built by white monopoly capital.

An extensive News24 investigation revealed the ties between the Gupta family and the owners of the website, and the Daily Maverick's Scorpio also reported  that the content posted on the website traced back to former Gupta staffers.

The content created on these websites would then be distributed using a network of fake social media accounts, eventually colloquialised as the "Guptabots".

An extensive analysis was done on the network and the way in which it distributes information on the data science blog Superlinear.