By Dr. Sandeep Goyal
First, for those not belonging to my generation, what is a VDIS? VDIS was the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme – a very unconventional but successful amnesty offer introduced in 1997 to unearth black-money. Back then, over 350,000 people disclosed their income and assets under the scheme, which brought a revenue of Rs. 78 billion (US$1.1 billion) to the Indian government’s coffers!
Why am I talking of a VDIS in the context of Social Media? Well, I am talking of a Voluntary Disclosure of Influence Scheme, which in today’s context will have to be christened more appropriately as a VDDFF – Voluntary Disclosure & Deletion of Fake Followers scheme. What triggered this idea off in my mind was news last week that the Mumbai Police have unearthed an international racket involving the creation of fake social media profiles, the sale of fake followers and likes to genuine and fake accounts, and other fraudulent activities by websites presenting themselves as social media marketing agencies. The police is said to have summoned 18 celebrities, including film directors, choreographers and models, who allegedly used the service of such websites to boost their online influence. The scam was busted following a complaint by Bollywood singer Bhoomi Trivedi about a fake Instagram profile posing as her official account. Mumbai Police has arrested a 20-year-old youth who is alleged to have created over 5 lakh ‘fake followers’ for a total of 176 profiles on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook. These fake followers were created both manually and with the help of software-powered ‘bots’. The arrested youth was obviously a minor pawn in a bigger game involving the peddling of ‘influence’ which today commands many hundreds, if not thousands, of crores in economic value for those who lay claim to ‘influence’ or claim huge numbers of ‘followers’ on social media.
Why is the VDDFF necessary? To cleanse the system? Yes, perhaps. To deliver more value to brands? No, frankly that’s not my concern. Then why upset the status quo? Everyone knows that there is huge make-believe in the social media world. Many politicians, Bollywood stars and starlets, even some top cricketers have followers running into millions … sometimes individually larger than the populations of many decent sized countries. Leading TV actors and believe it or not, even some corporate head honchos, have social media followings large enough to win them elections to the Lok Sabha many times over! Is all this for real? Should it not bother us all? Worry us? If fake news is such a big issue, why are fake followers not an equally big problem?
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‘Wired’ magazine ran a fabulous article last year on ‘Instagram’s US$1.3 Billion Problem — that of Fake Followers’. Wired said that as influencers strive for ever-higher engagement numbers, the battle between fake followers and fake-follower-detection tools is turning into an arms race. In India, that arms race is even more potent – Punjabi singers can manage 4-5 million YouTube views in one night ‘when Canada awakes and India sleeps’ (or so I was helpfully told!). When I asked aloud if there were even those many Punjabis in Canada, the influence peddler retreated into silence. The Wired article further went on to talk about how on Instagram, manufacturing fake followers is a ubiquitous tactic, one that last year churned out at least 95 million near-perfect human forgeries in the digital hallways, with social media users and advertisers completely unaware of the massive deception. You can buy these ‘followers’ in droves from dozens of services online, or even from a coin-operated vending machine created by artist Dries Depoorter! The fame dispenser “Quick Fix”: a wall-mounted box with an Arduino and a keyboard, allows visitors to type in their social media handles and select what faux honorific they’d like to receive — likes or followers, starting at just one euro, and delivered instantly. In Helsinki, where the machine debuted, “Quick Fix” was a revelation. In India, honestly, they would have laughed at the contraption: for being too public, and too expensive. Here, at home, likes and followers are available through shady operators located in moffusil locations in single rupee denominations. As many as you want, and as quickly as you want.
No aspersions being cast, look at the number of unknown apps that have suddenly gathered between 10 to 50 million followers in a matter of a week to replace TikTok. I had not heard of even one of them till TikTok shuttered. Subsequently, I saw no ads, no banners, no gateways to conversion or links for downloads for these new-found apps, but suddenly 120 odd million apps have got installed on Indian mobiles … or so Sensor Tower certifies. How does this digital magic happen? On the other hand, one of the US’ biggest and most successful apps with whom I do some work upped their user acquisition budget in India by 1000% post TikTok, but they are still not in the Top 20 downloaded apps on Google Store in recent weeks despite their global reputation, cutting edge AR technology, reasonably large current user base (read popularity), large ad spends and more. Need I say more?
A report by cybersecurity firm Cheq estimated that fake fans had cost brands US$1.3 billion globally, in 2019 alone. My guess would be an amount many times higher. In the influencer economy, since an Influencer is paid in part for the size of his/her audience, if an Influencer’s account is swarming with fake followers, brands are paying extra to reach people who don’t exist. Honestly, most digital agencies and would-be sponsors know they’re being scammed (not fully though or to what extent) but it is kind of an accepted norm in the business. “Comment pods” (or “engagement pods”) are groups of influencers who agree to like and comment on each other’s posts to artificially drive up engagement and improve their algorithmic performance. These are not very common in India as they are comparatively “more honest”, hence costed at much higher prices. “Botting”, more common in India, is the usage of automated fake accounts — bots — to bolster audience volumes and cashable numbers. In their contemporary form (or most charitable avatar) , “fake followers” are often real people, just not always the person they say they are, and, of course, not someone who is an actual fan (and hence, potential customer).
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Globally, clients and agencies do hire the likes of HelloSociety, Social Audit Pro, IG Audit, Hypr, HypeAuditor, and Famoid to sniff out counterfeit or fraudulent accounts — and Influencers who profit from them. But in India somehow most brands tend to turn a blind-eye to realities that are not difficult to spot. In fact, in a hard hitting article last year, The Economic Times had exposed many of the [https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/shadow-of-bot-followers-and-fake-likes-mars-social-media-influencers/articleshow/64674668.cms] malpractices in the social media market place – actually naming and identifying vendors like 1millionfans, Seoclerk, Instant-fans, Socioblend, Boostify, Socialking, Indialikes et al who were selling followers, likes, Indian likes and more bespoke offerings at prices which are not really that formidable or frightening.
To see a sudden spurt of say 10,000 followers in quick time (one week?) would (and should) invite suspicion, but unfortunately in India it doesn’t. Don’t ask me why. Media buyers and brand managers spend lavishly to get a Bollywood star, a famous cricketer or even a Top TikToker to tweet or post or include mention/show brand targeted to “followers” without any valid means of verification of ACTUAL numbers of REAL followers. But ‘sellers’ have figured a way around doubters like me by offering “drip followers”: if an Influencer orders 30,000 followers, for example, they arrive only 50 at a time, every day, for 600 days! Beat that! Look at the table below (Source : The Economic Times) for a rate-card on buying ‘influence’.
Twitter followers, retweets, favorites, tweets, mentions and replies as well as Facebook likes (Indian, English speaking countries, Arabs), fanpage likes, post likes, post shares, fan-page 5 Star ratings are all on offer : catering to the exploding demand from new-age influencers, celebrities, sports stars, politicians and an increasing number of social media enamoured brands. Everyone is seeking help to window-dress their appearances and reputations online. A trailer that doesn’t do a million views in a night? Verdict:Failed. A song that hasn’t got 2 million views on YouTube in 24 hours? Verdict: Dead. Future: Buried. So, with such high stakes, better to ‘buy’ social media currency than look stupid. No?
I have often been asked, “How much is the fake element in folloer data?”. I know my answer wouldn’t please many. 90% fake for politicians. 80% for Bollywood. About the same for cricketers. 90-95% for television stars. 90%+ for regular TikTokers. So this is a bubble bigger than most estimate it to be. If you remove all the visibly shady, suspicious accounts, all those coming from Turkey and Eastern Europe, and remove all those accounts with alpha-numeric names, etc. etc. follower tribes will deplete to near nothingness.
So where does this leave us, especially with my proposed VDDFF scheme?
-If the Mumbai Police can catch one culprit peddling fake followers, why can’t it find the others?
-If Mumbai Police have caught these ‘bot’ farmers, what about police forces in other states? Click farms are just about everywhere. Small, obscure, faceless entities. Many many of them.
-Can these social media cheats be prosecuted? Are the laws strong enough? Will they shut shop once pursued and mutate into newer avatars a few days later?
-Will the erring digital agencies that encouraged these fake fan followings be defrocked by clients?
-Will brand managers who unwittingly (I am being kind!) gave away monies to over-estimated Influencers get reprimanded or demoted?
-Will the Big Four (or Five? Or whatever) auditors set up practices that identify and nail malpractices in this space?
I think simpler than all this above is to introduce a VDDFF scheme. Voluntarily Disclose & Delete Fake Followers. Where the higher you declare & delete, the more you ‘trend’, the more famous you become. Get bigger bragging rights.
Can we ever have an ethical movement: “I am kosher because I don’t encourage/tolerate fake followers” kind of stuff? Well, my honest answer is no. There are many factors involved:
-Despite protestations to the contrary, the social media platforms themselves actually encourage the subterfuge. Not overtly, of course. But by benignly looking the other way till the next scandal comes along and some public housekeeping is forced upon them
-Followers empiricalise ‘fame’. A sort of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ one-upmanship. Celebrities revel in the numbers. The more, the merrier. Means and ethics be damned!
-Laws in this domain are still very far away from what is needed. They may never catch up.
-To metrics hungry digital agencies and brands, followers are a currency. Why destroy it? Nothing is perfect, isn’t it? (Didn’t we hear that about television TRPs too?).
-The Influencers are the biggest beneficiaries. An ordinary travel or food blogger who should logically have followers in low hundreds boasts of followers in hundreds of thousands. It is all easy money. Lots of gratification and freebies. Why would they want to give them up?
VDIS succeeded because there was both a stick and a carrot. You could go to jail if you did not volunteer to declare past sins and evasions. And if you came clean, you could just pay up and clean the past, and live happily thereafter. A win-win for all.
In my proposed VDDFF scheme, it is a lose-lose for all. Loss of fame. Loss of fortune. So, why do it. Fake news, fake followers … all par for the course. The social media system ain’t broken yet. Why fix it?!
Jab miyan-biwi raazi, to kyon koi banega kazi?!
-The author is Chairman of the Forum for Ethical Use of Data (FEUD). Views expressed are personal.