Social media is changing social accountability practices. The release of the Panama Papers on April 3, 2016 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) unleashed a tsunami of over 5 million tweets decrying corrupt politicians and tax-avoiding business elites, calling for policy change from governments, and demanding accountability from corporate and private tax avoiders. The current study uses 297,000+ original English-language geo-codable tweets with the hashtags #PanamaGate, #PanamaPapers, or #PanamaLeaks to examine the trajectory of Twitter-based social accountability conversations and the potential for the emergence of a longer-term social accountability user network. We propose that it is the combination of financial inscriptions and evaluative ethical utterances that incite and sustain social accountability conversations and social accountability networks. Financial inscriptions simultaneously remind audiences of both the information event that fomented the initial public reaction and the monetary magnitude of the event. Value-based ethical messaging, in turn, enunciates an ethical stance that simultaneously evaluates existing practices and emphasizes the need for accountability. It is the combining of these two types of messaging that helps to construct and sustain a normative narrative about social accountability. The results illustrate how the repetition and re-working of these two forms of messaging facilitated the construction of a normative narrative that coalesced into a social accountability network which persisted beyond the initial Panama Paper information event and which was re-activated in 2017 when the ICIJ published the Paradise Papers.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data are available from the public sources cited in the text.
The Panama Papers consisted of 11.5 million documents and 2.6 TB of data which contained details on the wealth accumulation and concealment activities of politicians, businesspeople and sports stars that were avoiding taxes by exploiting secretive offshore tax regimes. The Guardian, for example, notes that “twelve national leaders are among 143 politicians, their families and close associates from around the world known to have been using offshore tax havens” (Harding, 2016).
The Paradise Papers constitute 13.4 million confidential documents on tax haven activities that were made public by the ICIJ on November 5, 2017. The documents showed the “tax engineering activities of more than 100 multinational corporations, including Apple, Nike and the Botox-maker Allergan” as well as the “offshore interests and activities of more than 120 politicians and world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II, and 13 advisers, major donors and members of U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration” (ICIJ, 2019).
For additional background on the Panama Papers, including insights into the key actors involved, the deals that were leaked, how the offshore tax evasion schemes worked, and consequences of the leak, see Trautman (2017) and Obermayer and Obermaier (2016). For an examination of speech genres and illocutionary force in Spanish-language #PanamaPapers tweets, see Neu et al. (2020). For an academic discussion of tax evasion and avoidance, please see the growing body of critical research on tax in interdisciplinary accounting (e.g., Anesa et al., 2019; Radcliffe et al., 2018).
At the same time, broader “network” approaches—those that examine networks without explicitly using social network analysis tools—are also becoming increasingly popular (Mouritsen & Thrane, 2006).
Bruns and Stieglitz (2012) argue network participation can typically be understood according to a 1-9-90 breakdown, with “lead” users being those who are in the 99th percentile in terms of number of messages sent, “highly active users” are those who are in the next 9 percentiles (the 90th–98th percentiles), and “least active” users are those in the bottom 90th percentile.
In line with these ideas, the subsequent analyses are explicitly multi-method in nature, combining quantitative and qualitative analyses of the social media data as in Suddaby et al. (2015). Our first research question focuses on quantitative regression analyses, our second question on quantitative comparisons and qualitative and quantitative social network analysis (e.g., Richardson, 2009) measures, our third on qualitative and quantitative textual analyses (e.g., Moreno et al., 2019), and our fourth on quantitative comparisons. Also in line with our overall methodological approach, we approached our four research questions with a general analysis plan, but allowed the specific methods to evolve as inductive insights emerged from our initial analyses. Collectively, our multi-method analyses permit us to shed light on how accounting participates in the social accountability processes sparked by the release of the Panama Papers.
The coefficient on the interactive term Values-Based Words Financial Inscriptions in Model 4, meanwhile, is negative. This result is not surprising since we did not expect the efficacy of the two types of messaging to depend on the presence of both within the same tweet, but rather on the continuing presence of the two types of messaging within the conversation stream.
Within social media settings, conversations can drift and be disrupted as well as atrophy as participants turn their attention to other topics (Neu et al., 2020).
In Table 8 we show three measures of lexical diversity. Our first score, lexical diversity, is a basic measure reflecting the proportion of all words that are unique. The other two measures, MTLD (Measure of Textual Lexical Diversity) and HD-D (hypergeometric distribution diversity) are recommended by McCarthy and Jarvis (2010) insofar as they correct for the different lengths of the monthly samples of financial inscription tweets.
The application of textual analysis software such as LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) has become an increasingly common approach to uncovering hidden characteristics in text (Yekini et al., 2016). Our use of the LIWC dictionaries is similar to that employed in other recent accounting studies (Chen & Loftus, 2019; Hope & Wang, 2018; Moreno et al., 2019). For further details please refer to www.liwc.net.
Aerts, W. (2005). Picking up the pieces: Impression management in the retrospective attributional framing of accounting outcomes. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 30, 493–517.
Agha, A. (2005). Voice, footing, enregisterment. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 15, 38–59.
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31, 211–236.
Andrew, J., & Baker, M. (2020). The radical potential of leaks in the shadow accounting project: The case of US oil interests in Nigeria. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 82, 101101.
Anesa, M., Gillespie, N., Spee, A. P., & Sadiq, K. (2019). The legitimation of corporate tax minimization. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 75, 17–39.
Apostolides, N., & Boden, R. (2005). Cedric the pig: Annual general meetings and corporate governance in the UK. Social Responsibility Journal, 1, 53–62.
Bakshy, E., Hofman, J. M., Mason, W. A., & Watts, D. J. (2011). Everyone’s an influencer: Quantifying influence on Twitter. Proceedings of the Fourth ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining (pp. 65–74), New York, NY.
Blanc, R., Cho, C. H., Sopt, J., & Branco, M. C. (2019). Disclosure responses to a corruption scandal: The case of Siemens AG. Journal of Business Ethics, 56, 545–561.
Bonilla, Y., & Rosa, J. (2015). #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist, 42, 4–17.
Borgatti, S. P., & Cross, R. (2003). A relational view of information seeking and learning in social networks. Management Science, 49, 432–445.
Briggs, C. L., & Bauman, R. (1992). Genre, intertextuality, and social power. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2, 131–172.
Bruns, A., & Stieglitz, S. (2012). Quantitative approaches to comparing communication patterns on Twitter. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30, 160–185.
Burchell, S., Clubb, C., Hopwood, A., Hughes, J., & Nahapiet, J. (1980). The roles of accounting in organizations and society. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 5, 5–27.
Butler, J. (2015). Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Harvard University Press.
Castelló, I., Morsing, M., & Schultz, F. (2013). Communicative dynamics and the polyphony of corporate social responsibility in the network society. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 683–694.
Cha, M., Haddadi, H., Benevenuto, F., & Gummadi, P. K. (2010). Measuring user influence in Twitter: The million follower fallacy. ICWSM, 10, 30.
Chapman, C. S. (1998). Accountants in organisational networks. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 23, 737–766.
Chen, Z., & Loftus, S. (2019). Multi-method evidence on investors’ reactions to managers’ self-inclusive language. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 79, 1–19.
Cho, C. H., Roberts, R. W., & Patten, D. M. (2010). The language of US corporate environmental disclosure. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 35, 431–443.
Cooper, C., & Coulson, A. B. (2014). Accounting activism and Bourdieu’s ‘collective intellectual’—Reflections on the ICL Case. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 25, 237–254.
Cooper, D., & Hopper, T. (Eds.). (1988). Debating coal closures: Economic calculation in the coal dispute 1984–5 (No. 10). Cambridge University Press.
De Bakker, F. G., & Hellsten, I. (2013). Capturing online presence: Hyperlinks and semantic networks in activist group websites on corporate social responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 118(807), 823.
Dubinsky, Z. (2019). Panama Papers spur billion-dollar global tax windfall, with $15M found in Canada. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/panama-papers-cra-tax-recovered-charges-1.5082058. Accessed October 1, 2019.
Fieseler, C., & Fleck, M. (2013). The pursuit of empowerment through social media: Structural social capital dynamics in CSR-blogging. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 759–775.
Ghani, S., Kwon, B. C., Lee, S., Yi, J. S., & Elmqvist, N. (2013). Visual analytics for multimodal social network analysis: A design study with social scientists. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 19, 2032–2041.
Gomez-Carrasco, P., & Michelon, G. (2017). The power of stakeholders’ voice: The effects of social media activism on stock markets. Business Strategy and the Environment, 26, 855–872.
Harding, L. (2016). ‘What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/what–
Hope, O.-K., & Wang, J. (2018). Management deception, big-bath accounting, and information asymmetry: Evidence from linguistic analysis. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 70, 33–51.
ICIJ. (2019). Retrieved November 21, 2019 from International Consortium of Investigative Journalists website: https://www.icij.org/investigations/panama-papers/
Kockelman, P. (2007). Agency: The relation between meaning, power, and knowledge. Current Anthropology, 48, 375–401.
Lazer, D. M., Baum, M. A., Benkler, Y., Berinsky, A. J., Greenhill, K. M., Menczer, F., Metzger, M. J., Nyhan, B., Pennycook, G., Rothschild, D., & Schudson, M. (2018). The science of fake news. Science, 359(6380), 1094–1096.
Lee, K., Oh, W.-Y., & Kim, N. (2013). Social media for socially responsible firms: Analysis of Fortune 500’s Twitter profiles and their CSR/CSIR ratings. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 791–806.
Li, F. (2010). The information content of forward-looking statements in corporate filings: A naïve Bayesian machine learning approach. Journal of Accounting Research, 48, 1049–1102.
Lucas, K., & Fyke, J. P. (2014). Euphemisms and ethics: A language-centered analysis of Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal. Journal of Business Ethics, 122, 551–569.
McCarthy, P. M., & Jarvis, S. (2010). MTLD, voc-D, and HD-D: A validation study of sophisticated approached to lexical diversity assessment. Behavior Research Methods, 42, 381–392.
Making All Voices Count. (2018). Making all voices count: Technologies, citizen voice, and accountable governance. http://www.makingallvoicescount.org. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Merkl-Davies, D. M., Brennan, N. M., & McLeay, S. J. (2011). Impression management and retrospective sense making in corporate narratives: A social psychology perspective. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 24, 315–344.
Moreno, A., Jones, M., & Quinn, M. (2019). A longitudinal study of the textual characteristics in the chairman’s statements of Guinness: An impression management perspective. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 32, 1714–1741.
Morton, J. (2009). Staying neutral: Journalists should not reveal their political views, Twitter or no Twitter. American Journalism Review, 31, 60–61.
Mouritsen, J., & Thrane, S. (2006). Accounting, network complementarities and the development of inter-organisational relations. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 31, 241–275.
Munro, I. (2017). Whistle-blowing and the politics of truth: Mobilizing ‘truth games’ in the WikiLeaks case. Human Relations, 70, 519–543.
Munro, I., & Thanem, T. (2018). Deleuze and the deterritorialization of strategy. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 53, 69–78.
Neu, D., Saxton, G. D., Everett, J., & Rahaman, A. S. (2020). Speaking truth to power: Twitter reactions to the Panama Papers. Journal of Business Ethics, 162, 473–485.
Neu, D., Saxton, G. D., & Rahaman, A. S. (2021). Social accountability, ethics and the Occupy Wall Street protests. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04795-3
Obermayer, B., & Obermaier, F. (2016). The Panama Papers: Breaking the story of how the rich and powerful hide their money. One World Books.
O’Dwyer, B., & Unerman, J. (2008). The paradox of greater NGO accountability: A case study of Amnesty Ireland. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33, 801–824.
Pfau, M., Diedrich, T., Larson, K. M., & Winkle, K. M. (1995). Influence of communication modalities on voters’ perceptions of candidates during presidential primary campaigns. Journal of Communication, 45, 122–133.
Preuss, L., & Dawson, D. (2009). On the quality and legitimacy of green narratives in business: A framework for evaluation. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 135–149.
Radcliffe, V. S., Spence, C., Stein, M., & Wilkinson, B. (2018). Professional repositioning during times of institutional change: The case of tax practitioners and changing moral boundaries. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 66, 45–59.
Richardson, A. J. (2009). Regulatory networks for accounting and auditing standards: A social network analysis of Canadian and international standard-setting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 34, 571–588.
Richardson, A. J. (2017). Merging the profession: A social network analysis of the consolidation of the accounting profession in Canada. Accounting Perspectives, 16, 83–104.
Roberts, J. (1991). The possibilities of accountability. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 16, 355–368.
Roberts, J. (2009). No one is perfect: The limits of transparency and an ethic for ‘intelligent’ accountability. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 34, 957–970.
Roberts, J., & Scapens, R. (1985). Accounting systems and systems of accountability: Understanding accounting practices in their organisational contexts. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 10, 443–456.
Rodrigue, M., Cho, C. H., & Laine, M. (2015). Volume and tone of environmental disclosure: A comparative analysis of a corporation and its stakeholders. Social and Environmental Accountability Journal, 35, 1–16.
Saxton, G. D., Ren, C., & Guo, C. (2020). Responding to diffused stakeholders on social media: Connective power and firm reactions to CSR-related Twitter messages. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04472-x
Saxton, G. D., & Waters, R. D. (2014). What do stakeholders ‘like’ on Facebook? Examining public reactions to nonprofit organizations’ informational, promotional, and community-building messages. Journal of Public Relations Research, 26, 280–299.
Shachaf, P., & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36, 357–370.
She, C., & Michelon, G. (2019). Managing stakeholder perceptions: Organized hypocrisy in CSR disclosures on Facebook. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 61, 54–76.
Suddaby, R., Saxton, G., & Gunz, S. (2015). Twittering change: The institutional work of domain change in accounting expertise. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 45, 52–68.
Tetlock, P. C. (2007). Giving content to investor sentiment: The role of media in the stock market. Journal of Finance, 62, 1139–1168.
Tetlock, P. C., Saar-Tsechansky, M., & Macskassy, S. (2008). More than words: Quantifying language to measure firms’ fundamentals. Journal of Finance, 63, 1437–1467.
Trautman, L. (2017). Following the money: Lessons from the Panama Papers: Part 1: Tip of the iceberg. Penn State Law Review, 2016–2017, 807–873.
USAID. (2018). Citizens’ voice project. https://cvpa-tdea.org/v3/. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Sage.
Whelan, G., Moon, J., & Grant, B. (2013). Corporations and citizenship arenas in the age of social media. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 777–790.
Winkler, I. (2011). The representation of social actors in corporate codes of ethics: How code language positions internal actors. Journal of Business Ethics, 101, 653–665.
World Bank. (2018). Citizen engagement. http://www.worldbank.org/en/about/what-we-do/brief/citizen-engagement. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Wu, L., & Liu, H. (2018). Tracing fake-news footprints: Characterizing social media messages by how they propagate. In Proceedings of the Eleventh ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining (pp. 637–645). ACM.
Yekini, L. S., Wisniewski, T. P., & Millo, Y. (2016). Market reaction to the positiveness of annual report narratives. British Accounting Review, 48, 415–430.
The funding provided by SSHRC is gratefully acknowledged as are the comments of our colleagues, participants at the 2017 Critical Perspectives on Accounting conference, and attendees at the Schulich School of Business research seminar.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Saxton, G.D., Neu, D. Twitter-Based Social Accountability Processes: The Roles for Financial Inscriptions-Based and Values-Based Messaging. J Bus Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04952-8
- Big data
- Ethical values
- Financial inscriptions
- Normative narratives
- Social accountability
- Social media
- Tax avoidance