Here are the particulars that triggered the investigation that unraveled a social media scam around buying fake followers involving several celebrities and a network of entities.
An investigation that commenced last month uncovered a social media scam with a problem that runs deep through fake accounts, followers, and engagement.
The investigation was triggered by a Singer Bhoomi Trivedi, when she approached the Police with a complaint regarding a fake social media account that was impersonating her & (later) claimed to manage her account, and was soliciting funds in exchange for fraudulent social media engagement such as followers/likes/verification, etc.
A renowned choreographer fell prey to this and paid an amount to the accused, but later got in touch with Bhoomi after realizing it was a fake profile. After this was brought to her attention, Bhoomi Trivedi filed a complaint with Mumbai Police for misusing her name.
Trivedi also told Mumbai Mirror, that some of her industry friends and followers informed her that they received a message from a PR agency claiming they had got her Instagram account verified for INR 4,000, and few of her followers and friends had fallen for the scam.
According to reports, the crime branch’s Central Intelligence Unit has arrested Abhishek Davade/Daude, who works for a website called followerskart.com that uses automated software (bots) to provide fraudulent engagement on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
Davade was tracked through his social media activities and was arrested from Kurla by a team lead by Sachin Vaze under the guidance of DCP Nandkumar Thakur.
The investigation found that the website is linked to a larger international racket involving cores of fake followers, profiles, views, comments, and likes. DCP Thakur mentioned, “The perpetrators have been found to be operating on Indian and foreign networks and servers”.
There are at least a hundred of such websites in India, the crime branch has identified fifty-four until now. Such websites and/or companies involved provide fake engagement to ‘artists’, ‘celebrities’, ‘models’, ‘influencers’, and more of such people who want to gain fake engagement and followers.
Davade had created more than five lakh fake followers for a total of 176 Profiles on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, etc. Reports suggest that several celebrities, artists, models, and more had used these services.
Reportedly, out of the 176 people who used the services, Mumbai Police recorded statements of (around) 16 people through video conference, including a director, and a make-up artist.
Rapper, Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia, popularly known as Badshah was also interrogated. He confessed to paying INR 72 lakh for 7.2 core views on YouTube, to set a world record for his song ‘Pagal Hai’.
He claimed Pagal hai received 75 million views on YouTube within 24 hours of its release, the claim was rejected by Alphabet (YouTube’s Parent company) according to reports.
Kashif Tanvar, another person arrested who is allegedly involved in the scam in his bail application mentioned his offense is not punishable under the law, and can only amount to unethical or unfair trade practices. He further added neither he has anything to do with the co-accused, nor was he named by the complainant.
A sessions court is likely to decide soon if providing fake engagement on social media will be accounted for as an offense. There is no specific law in India to deal with such cases involving buying, selling, or providing fraudulent engagement on social media platforms.
Although laws subjecting forgery of physical or electronic records for the purposes of cheating can be brought into play but it may be difficult to regard it as a punishable offense.
Fraudulent activities and fake engagement have had a long history that probably cannot be dated back to a specific timeline, but emerged or grew when social media platforms enabled users to monetize their presence with paid promotions.
The foremost threshold for any brand to choose a user to promote their brand is the volume of their following. Having more engagement also validates their content, or portrays users as popular, to the general social media population, which leads to utilization of such services.
In a blog post published on Medium ‘The $744 M Influencer Marketing Scam’ in July 2019 by Anders Ankarlid, CEO & Co-Founder, A Good Company, a research company based in Sweden, found that India ranks third with the highest number of fraudulent Instagram influencers.
An average of 57% accounts bought engagement and/or following, globally. An additional survey of an estimated 4000 influencers found that more than 60% admit to using fake engagement and one in five plan to continue doing so.
Social media platforms have to continuously deal with several such cases involving fraudulent activities. Instagram was building machine-learning tools to monitor and eliminate inauthentic engagement on the platform. The purge that caught the most attention was the one that they undertook in February 2019.
Akshar Pathak, Srishti Dixit, and Mallika Dua were few of the prominent names that lost thousands of followers. Several others reported losing following too.
Facebook provides a summary of inauthentic behavior on the platform at frequent intervals. Coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB), with efforts to manipulate public debate or present a false image or execute a misleading campaign by operating fake accounts.
In July 2020, Facebook claims to have removed nine networks of accounts Pages and Groups linked to commercial entities and individuals associated with political campaigns in countries such as the United States, Brazil, and more. In April 2019, Facebook had also removed CIB and spam from India & Pakistan.
Despite efforts from more of such or these social media platforms, detection and removal of such activites seem to not be enough; system or tools that bar such activites from originating may aid.
In the context of marketing, brands often shell out loads of funds on several celebrities, artists, and more. With a whole ecosystem built, a substantial fragment of it relies on fraudulent activities, as previously reported by A Good Company, and now with this racket.
Fraudulent activities operating through fake accounts, followers, and engagement not just tarnish the authenticity of the platform, and gives out a false image but can also seriously manipulate public discussions, push propaganda, and have real-world consequences.
A senior officer told The Indian Express, several politicians and political parties are suspected to be utilizing such services to boost their social media presence, making it likely that there will be political resistance to restrain such behavior.