Big biz on Net comes with riders

The arrest of YouTuber Thoppi shone the limelight on social media influencers, some of whom are apparently earning in crores piquing the tax department’s interest. There is glamour and money in good content, but poor regulatory mechanisms spawn bad eggs too, whose influence on the audience can be perilous. The industry, which took wings during the lockdown period, is majorly into marketing too. The viewer is, undoubtedly, the king.

Updated - June 30, 2023 08:02 am IST

Published - June 30, 2023 12:27 am IST - KOCHI

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Not many had heard of Mrz Thoppi until June 24 when his arrest made news. The YouTuber was nabbed by the police from an apartment in Kochi in a dramatic midnight ‘operation’ on charges of posting explicit content and obstructing traffic during a shop inauguration at Valanchery in Malappuram. 

His tribe of followers – mostly schoolchildren – was quick to register their protest on social media. Some even threatened to boycott school. 

Mohammed Nihad, aka Thoppi, is a gamer, whose expletive-laden content is consumed by over 7 lakh subscribers on YouTube. He was also accused of fuelling trans and Islamophobia. Several social observers concluded that Thoppi was representative of an anarchic Internet subculture that is subversive, misogynistic, even violent. 

While Thoppi’s arrest became a cause celebre, some suggested that the youngster could well be suffering from mental health issues. They defended his freedom of expression as well. Thoppi is now out on bail, and the dust is settling. 

Tax dept. up to the task

Incidentally, just a day ahead of Thoppi’s arrest, the Income Tax department raided the residences and workplaces of 13 popular YouTubers and content creators from various districts across Kerala. According to the IT department, some of them had an income that exceeded ₹1 crore annually, which was not accounted for. 

The incident raises concerns of tax evasion and transparency of paid promotional content on social media. According to the provisions of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), service providers such as YouTubers and bloggers are now required to register under the GST Act if their annual turnover exceeds ₹20 lakh. This means that those falling into this category must adhere to a GST rate of 18%, which comprises 9% Central Goods and Services Tax (CGST) and 9% State Goods and Services Tax (SGST).

In recent times, the Income Tax department has set its sights on YouTubers whose annual income is estimated to range from ₹1 to ₹2 crore. And this does not include the earnings they generate from paid promotional content. But the YouTubers maintain that their income is fluctuating in nature and depends on the viewership of their content.

A full-time profession

Despite the murkiness of cyberspace, being a social media influencer in Kerala today is a lucrative, full time-profession, says Jinsha Basheer, a YouTuber from Kayamkulam, who has one million followers on Facebook and over two-and-a-half lakh subscribers on YouTube. 

A software engineer, Jinsha quit her job to become a full-time influencer. “It wasn’t planned. In 2018, I was at a fuel station and I saw an employee tampering with the fuel. When I confronted him, he ignored me. What do you do when you see something wrong happening? Let it go and move on? I decided to speak up,” says Jinsha. 

Little did she know that what awaited her was overnight social media stardom. “The post went viral and within one month, I gained 1 lakh followers,” she says. She also became one of the first hijab-wearing influencers from Kerala. Jinsha and her husband Muhammad Faisal, also a software engineer and content creator, recently declared in a YouTube video that they were able to build a house of their dreams with the income they made solely from FaceBook. Jinsha had also posted a tour of the palatial house for her viewers.

Question of ethics

Jinsha is a travel vlogger who also creates content for public information. “I like to do videos that can help my viewers. For instance, I create content about how to seek information in a government department.” Jinsha enjoys celebrity status and gets invited to give motivational lectures in colleges and schools in addition to shop inaugurations and restaurant and resort reviews world wide. But she swears by her ethics. “I don’t endorse any product that I have not used for at least a month,” she says. “People look up to me and they trust me. I will not mislead them,” she adds.

The life of an influencer is not without stressing factors. One is constantly navigating the changing algorithms of social media to garner likes, followers and subscribers. Add to it the craft of editing and putting out a video that would “click” with the viewers. “For a format such as reels on Instagram, two hours worth content has to be conveyed in 60 seconds,” says food and travel vlogger Balram Menon, who has over 2 lakh followers on Instagram. 

Thorough research

A businessman based in Kanjiramattom, Balram says he takes his content creation job seriously. “I ensure that I do my research. I don’t do anything that would affect my credibility and I take care to use clean language. I believe that is one of the reasons why I have a devoted set of followers.” 

Though he does paid promotions for brands as well, his focus, says Balram, is on narrativising his food and travel exploits, which have a growing viewership. “A video on Jayaram Hotel at Puthur in Tamil Nadu, which makes and sells 250 kilos of prawn dishes in a day, garnered 28 million views. Food is a segment which always gets traction. People are curious and they want to experiment. If you put out informative content, there is a quality audience,” he adds.

A supportive space

It was during and post-COVID-19 that people started perceiving social media differently. There was an uptick in the time people spent on their phones, especially during the lockdown. It became an optimistic space, which offered support, networking opportunities and entertainment. According to the fifth edition of the India Influence report by influencer marketing platform Zefmo, India is set to have over 100 million content creators across all social media platforms in 2023. 

And it is a fertile ground for those who want to make quick bucks while “being themselves”. People relate to influencers more than they relate to mainstream celebrities. Cashing in on the trend is Thrissur-based Ashwin V.B., who started an influencer marketing company, Pin Social, when he was laid off work during the pandemic. Influencer marketing is an emerging industry, where brands pay social media celebrities to advertise their products. 

Influencers as promoters

“We connect the brands with the right influencers who can promote their products. We identify the influencers and the payment is decided based on the influencer’s value and followers. We have a system by which we audit the influencer. Through this process, we would be able to find out if they have fake followers,” adds Ashwin.

Emerging brands now get into collaborations with influencers, rather than spending on traditional means of advertising, says Ashwin. Most businesses stand to gain by collaborating even with micro-influencers, he adds. “Any content creator who has followers between 5,000 and 10,000 and has a target audience of say, 6,000 to 7,000 in a region can be called a micro-influencer,” says Ashwin.

According to Statista, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in India, with over 314.6 million users in 2023. It also has the most buying power, as far as an influencer is concerned. Depending on the value of the influencer, a 20-minute video, if viewed fully, can fetch him or her anywhere from ₹30,000 upwards. 

Though it is a booming business, being a social media influencer still does not get the respectability it deserves, feels Kottayam-based lifestyle and fashion digital creator Maria Dominic. A single mother, Maria is a full-time content creator. “It is a legit job, but most people don’t take it seriously.” Her Instagram account has 1,34,000 followers. “People see only the glamor of being an influencer, but it has a flipside too,” says Maria, who regularly finds her photographs being misused by random websites. “There is a need for more stringent cyber laws,” she adds.

The arm of the law

So is social media still largely an unregulated space? “The laws have been in place since 2021, including content censorship. It is just the delay in implementation,” says cybercrime investigator Dhanya Menon. “The Digital India Act, expected to come into effect by the end of the year, will regulate social media better as it brings aspects such as online gaming and cyber bullying among others under its purview. It will bring about drastic changes,” she adds. However, at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with the users. “You are responsible for the content you upload. If it is objectionable in nature, it can be held against you,” she says. 

Aggressive online behaviour stems from a person’s inherent need to get attention and recognition, says consultant psychiatrist C.J. John, who is a member of the Kerala State Mental Health Authority. “Especially in the case of teenagers and young adults, social media gives instant fame and attention. The ‘likes’ they get online are seen as a real form of recognition. The case of Thoppi is just one example. There is enough content on social media that is objectionable. It is for the parents and teachers to give children an avenue to express themselves; this would gradually empower them to differentiate between good content and bad,” he adds.

Boils down to choice

The good versus bad debate is real, says Rohith Pradeep, a BTech student in Ernakulam. “Good content easily outweighs bad. I follow social media regularly for tech content and entertainment and there is enough good content online. It is essentially about one’s choices. Would you say that reading is bad if one chooses to read ‘bad’ works?”

Ernakulam-based techie Abish Puthussery echoes his sentiment. “There is no need to make sweeping generalisations on social media and content creators. What about the prime time debates on television? The quality of some of the debates makes content creators such as Thoppi look good. It is the same with reality shows which our children have easy access to.”

Poet and writer Rammohan Paliyath, whose column in a contemporary Malayalam magazine dwells on the workings of the age of social media, says the need of the hour is digital minimalism. “Children today have no connection with nature or society, their entertainment and delight is confined to the digital space. If parents practise this minimalism, it sets an example for children to explore the real world around them.” 

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