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Kartik Kala

Gaining social media followers in an ever-changing world is more difficult than generally perceived. The growing menace of fake profiles is a host of problems like impersonation, freedom of expression, anonymity and misleading social media metrics. There are around 16 million fake profiles on Instagram just in India. 

They all, celebrities and influencers, want to be a successful social media marketers instead of having trust in their talent or content, leading them to buy followers. With high-end influencers buying followers and views for their social presence, the credibility of social media hangs in question. This has caused concerns that arise from the differences between legality and criminal offence. Well, “all that glitters is not gold”.

On July 16, Mumbai police said it had discovered a major foreign scam involving social media marketing firms building and running false identities and engaging in fraudulent business practices. The problem came to light on July 11, after vocal artist Bhoomi Trivedi had approached Mumbai Police and pursued action against unknown individuals who had developed her fake profile on Instagram. Well, the investigation revealed that there are around 54 companies in India, providing approximately five lakh fake profiles for at least 176 accounts. 

Is this a criminal offence? 

When you search “Is paying for followers on social media wrong?”, Google will present to you around 6,88,00,000 results. All saying the same thing, it’s illegal!

When we talk about fake followers, they loosely translate to “bots” or accounts that impersonate someone on a digital platform. This is done to increase the number of followers on a particular account, which in the digital space is a cybercrime! 

It is a criminal offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000. The Indian Penal Code sections that deal with impersonation include 415 (cheating), 416 (cheating by personation), and 499 (defamation).

In certain cases, legal experts claim, section 468 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with committing forgery of a document or electronic record for cheating purposes, may also be applied.

Under the IT Act, which deals with cyber and electronic resources, section 66D states that "Whoever, by means of any communication device or computer resource cheats by personation, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend up to three years and shall also be liable to a fine which may extend up to one lakh rupees.”

This makes it even more crucial, today, for the influencer marketing industry to realise that paid promotions are not the same as paying to buy fake followers and participating in their promotion. Paid ads boost the number of followers to improve the influencers’ presence on social media.

Paid promotions are honest and legal way to allow your content to reach a mass audience, while paid followers or fake followers are illegal and offer a short-term monetary gain solution.

Social media algorithms work in such a way that it has become an integral part for brands and digital influencers to promote their posts with a little amount in order to increase their visibility, which is absolutely fine and legal. 

Where do the social media platforms stand? 

Most social media platforms have protections against impersonation and fake profiles under their ‘terms of use’ and may take action if a profile is not run by an individual itself. 

Platforms like Instagram have in the past deleted accounts that they suspected were using third-party apps to increase their follower count. However, only the person who's being impersonated can file a report. 

Twitter accounts that pose as another person, brand, or organisation in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended under Twitter’s impersonation policy. 

Social media platforms cannot really be condemned for this either, thanks to the contractual arrangement between the user and that platform. Under the IT ACT's intermediary liability regulations, there is a due diligence provision that the websites must meet to defend from liability for the content uploaded by users. 

Section 79 of the IT Act “is a ‘safe harbour’ provision, which grants conditional immunity to intermediaries from liability for third-party acts.

Agencies, social media sites and advertisers need to cooperate and keep the playing field open for everybody. It must be assured with the right checks and balances that the word 'fake followers' does not exist. Agencies must define important metrics before they partner with influencers. For example, 'evaluation of influencers according to their count of followers alone' is not a measure adopted by agencies like TopSocial. These agencies do a thorough check on the profiles of the brands as well as the content creators in order to work with both the powers in harmony in the digital world. 

In conclusion, brands have become proactive in deciding and figuring out the repercussions of this news on their influencer marketing campaigns and thus become very selective of the influencers. So what can these influencers do to expand without illicit means? Digital creators/influencers are responsible for being trustworthy and accountable. And content strategy, research and execution are key. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)