Certain IT firms offer to boost online popularity with fake followers, run campaigns against rivals

Investigative website Cobrapost.com on Friday claimed to have “exposed” certain IT firms for “misusing” social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help politicians artificially boost their popularity with fake ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, and running campaigns against rivals and even triggering panic among minority groups.

However, experts are sceptical of the “tall claims” made by the firm owners featured in the Cobrapost’s undercover operation called “Operation Blue Virus”. The video-footage released by the website, the authenticity of which The Hindu can not verify independently, was screened before the media on Friday. Cobrapost.com Editor Aniruddha Bahal alleged that some of the IT firms featured in the footage claimed to be working for the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

“Operation Blue Virus also reveals that the BJP is leading from the front in its social media campaign, if claims of the companies exposed are to be believed. So is its prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, with scores of companies working overtime for him,” alleged the investigative website.

“This puts a question mark on the claims of the BJP leadership that there is a wind blowing in favour of their party in general and Mr. Modi in particular, for it may not be real,” said Mr. Bahal.

The BJP, for its part, has dismissed the purported exposé, describing it as the handiwork of the “dirty tricks department” of the Congress. BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar on Friday said: “It has been ensured that the places where the Congress is named in the footage has bad audio. It shows that the Congress is scared of Mr. Modi’s popularity and the support the BJP is getting ahead of elections.”

Reacting to the Cobrapost operation, Ishan Russel, the managing partner of ‘The Image People’, a social media and political campaign consultancy, said the issue of buying “likes” or “followers” was not new as recently Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was accused of buying Facebook likes.

Mr. Russel finds the claims made by the firm owners in the Cobrapost operation “surprising”.

“At some levels, the jobs these people promised to execute on social media platforms are really surprising. The manner in which some of the guys claimed to get bombs exploded and get bogus voting done was not about social media but terrorism,” he said.

“If a politician has million followers but they are fake, it does not make any difference because the fake likes would not translate into million votes. Any politician can not run his campaign through fake likes because fake followers do not result in positive campaigning on the ground,” added Mr. Russel.

Mr. Bahal earlier said that the malpractices highlighted by the Cobrapost operation included violation of various laws, including the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the Income Tax Act, 1961, and were as such punishable under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code.

“The veil of anonymity that digital technologies provide the abusers of social media has to be pierced,” added Mr. Bahal. Demanding investigations into the functioning of the IT companies in question, he said government authorities would have to pull up their socks and “put in place a comprehensive mechanism to tackle the misuse of social media, which is largely unregulated, without impinging on freedom of speech.”

The Election Commission last month issued a series of instructions to the political parties according to which every candidate, at the time of filing their nomination has to give their email IDs or accounts of their social networking sites, if any, for monitoring by the poll/expenditure officials.

According to the EC, the content of the advertisements issued by the parties/candidates in such internet sites should be pre-certified by appropriate authorities and the order would be applicable to the social media and collaborative projects (i.e. Wikipedia), blogs and micro blogs (Twitter), content communities (YouTube), social networking sites (Facebook), and virtual game-worlds (Apps).

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