Cobrapost’s Stings IT firms with Operation Blue Virus. How Authentic is this?

Cobrapost.com, an investigative portal claims to have “exposed” in a sting operation named ‘Operation Blue Virus’, how IT companies in India are exploiting Social Media for malicious practices. The report says that online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are being used by these companies to help politicians artificially boost their fake reputation with bogus ‘likes’ and ‘followers’. They have also been running campaigns against opponents and even bringing about fear amongst minority communities.

The sting operation pointed out about two dozen such companies which are running the shady business of online reputation management, editor Aniruddha Bahal said in a media release.

The report claims that the IT companies offer a wide range of services such as generating fake fans and following, monitoring and deleting negative comments, spreading negativity about rivals, posting content from foreign servers such as US and Korea, creating viral videos, running SMS campaigns, hacking accounts, etc.

Fake likes and followers

The issue of buying fake fans from other countries was never a new one. Sure, they will like your page, but Facebook’s algorithm will anyways filter such pages from the newsfeed. Twitter too, has imposed reasonable limits to help prevent malicious acts on the social network.

The value of your social presence used to depend on the size of the audience, well not any more. Now there is lot of awareness about fake fans among brands, agencies and consumers.

Sadly, the Indian politicians are still playing the fake social game. Most of them are unaware of the fact that buying fake likes cannot guarantee the same turnout on the polling day, especially in a country where significant amount of people are not using the internet.

However, some of the politicians have been early adopters of technology; say for example, Narendra Modi who has been actively using social media and live chats since 2011.

Cobrapost claims that Operation Blue Virus reveals that BJP is leading from the front in its social media campaign, so is its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, with scores of companies working overtime for him. But there is no evidence produced by the IT companies or Cobrapost to back this claim.

Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore the fact that he’s one of the most active politicians on Social Media. And I believe, it’s impossible to create such a massive fan following overnight with fake. Social media takes time and it needs to be a well-planned, concerted, continuous effort.

Strangely Cobrapost charges only BJP for fake likes. We all know that previously Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot was also accused of buying Facebook likes from Istanbul. The videos nowhere talk of the Congress Party’s Feku express campaign and their desperate Social Media contests distributing free movie tickets.

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As a result, I cannot comment on the authenticity of the videos.

On the other hand, BJP trashed operation blue virus as a work of the “dirty tricks department” of Congress.  “BJP completely dismisses the Cobrapost sting operation on use of social media. Congress has stooped to this level and achieved a new low even before the Lok Sabha elections have been announced. It is frustrated by the growing popularity of Modi and the support for him,” party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said.

Indeed a lot of Social Media experts are skeptical about the Operation Blue Virus.

Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet Society says to Firstpost, “It seems that in some cases they (the IT firms exposed by Cobrapost) employed botnets. Malicious use of botnets would definitely be illegal under sections 43 and 66 of the IT Act (not s.66A).” He says while it he could not comment on the veracity of Cobrapost’s claims, “Cobrapost should have consulted someone who understands technology well before publishing their report.” He points that in the expose it says, “They would use proxy codes on their computers such that their locations change every hour, making detection impossible,” (From the Cobrapost report) which doesn’t make sense. “While *proxies* (*proxy servers*) are used to evade detection, *proxy codes* is not a term I’ve heard before,” he adds.

We tried reaching out to Cobrapost and Mr. Aniruddha Bahal to listen to their side of the story; however, we couldn’t find anything about Cobrapost’s contact information on their website.

We did reach out to Mr. Bipin Pathare who sells softwares to political parties. He was of the opinion that his video that has been uploaded on Youtube by Cobrapost is misguiding and has been edited to depict a totally different picture that Cobrapost wanted to portray in front of the viewers.

What is the Election Commission doing about such malpractices by political parties?

Election Commission had summoned social media companies to a meeting to discuss the monitoring of content on these platforms to ensure that there is no breach of code of conduct by candidates and political parties in the upcoming elections, reports Times of India.

The Election commission had also issued initial guidelines for the use of Social Media for election campaigning.

Candidates are required to provide information about their (official) Social Media accounts, in the affidavits that they file at the time of filing nominations.

Every registered party and contesting candidate proposing to issue advertisements, will have to apply to Election Commission of India/designated officer for pre-certification of all political advertisements on electronic media (including Social Media) before the publication.

They will also have to submit their expenditure on online campaigning made to internet companies and websites for carrying advertisements, operational expenditure on making of creative development of content, operational expenditure on salaries and wages paid to the team of workers employed by such candidates and political parties to maintain their social media accounts, etc.

The election commission has also give a Model Code of Conduct to content on Internet including social media.

In my opinion, such malicious acts might be prevalent among some political parties, but I am not very sure of Cobrapost’s intentions because operation Blue Virus is targeting only a few parties and leaving out other major parties. As far as malpractices are concerned, politicians are still fooling around with fake likes, however citizens are getting wiser as everyone is now familiar with social media.

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