Bollywood rapper Badshah’s alleged payment for fake views on a music video, in a bid to break a YouTube viewership record, is the latest instance of the film industry coming under the scanner for what media experts say is common practice for celebrities looking for validation and to sign better brand endorsement deals.

As popularity and viability get assessed on the basis of numbers, several film stars, considered big-time influencers by brands, buy into it.

A 2019 report by London-based independent music education provider Institute of Contemporary Music Performance had named actors Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra among the 10 global celebrities with maximum fake followers on Instagram. As much as 48% and 46% of their respective followers are operating ‘bot’ accounts, according to the analysis. Neither actor responded to the report while Badshah, too, has denied the latest allegations.

“Back in the day on Facebook, the metric was ‘friends’ and so celebrities and brands went overboard in maximizing that. The ecosystem of fake profile generation was a result of it. The emphasis on these metrics and how the platforms’ own algorithms incentivize a larger number is the motivation for the mad rush (for followers),” said Karthik Nagarajan, chief content officer at media agency Wavemaker India. “We are going through a strange phase in art where it is not just enough for an independent artist to be great at his or her craft. He or she needs to be a great social media marketer as well. Some artists are able to de-prioritize vanity in metrics and some live and die by it.”

Chandrima Mitra, partner at DSK Legal, said that influencer marketing has become a significant part of digital marketing for legitimate movie or music marketing campaigns where views and likes may be bought for a film or its trailer or songs, a process that is linked to spreading the word, increasing the popularity and familiarity of the film which may or may not help in revenue generation though the hope is that it does.

“It becomes problematic when an influencer or celebrity attracts brands based on their fan following, which determines the revenues payable to the influencer. If such fan following is not organically grown, then it can amount to being illegal and unethical,” Mitra explained.

Interpretation of cases this way is the only means for a celebrity to be booked on certain charges of fraud or cheating under the Indian Penal Code. Otherwise, there are no real legal implications of purchasing followers, likes or views because to think of it, the celebrity in question isn’t harming anyone.

“There are several small organizations and individuals creating bot accounts for as much as 5-10 paise per bot. It is simply seen as easy means to make money,” Pranav Nair, assistant vice-president, media at Monk Media Network said. Nair added that it is easy for social media platforms to detect fake accounts based on the fact that there is no real activity or engagement coming from them, even for the celebrities they follow or that they have no followers themselves. However, some people can easily circumvent this by uploading fake pictures from the web, plus the platforms are swamped with user activity on a daily basis to really keep track.

“Inauthentic activity has no place on Instagram. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on the platform are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behaviour. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, aren’t allowed as per our community guidelines,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

In November 2018, Instagram had said it would begin removing inauthentic likes, follows and comments from accounts that use third-party apps to boost their popularity. The company has built machine-learning tools to help identify accounts that use these services and remove the inauthentic activity.

“Accounts we identify using these services will receive an in-app message alerting them that we have removed the inauthentic likes, follows and comments given by their account to others. We will also ask them to secure their account by changing their password. People who use these types of apps share their username and password, and their accounts are sometimes used by third-party apps for inauthentic likes, follows and comments. Not only does this introduce bad behaviour into the Instagram community, it also makes these accounts less secure,” Instagram guidelines state.

YouTube and Twitter did not respond to Mint’s queries. But the latter’s platform guidelines, as outlined in a blog posted in September 2019, prohibit selling or purchasing tweet or account metric inflation, including followers or engagements, (retweets, likes, mentions, Twitter poll votes) or using or promoting third-party services or apps that claim to add followers or engagements to tweets.

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