The Mumbai Police earlier this week arrested a 20-year-old man for allegedly creating a fake profile of Bollywood playback singer Bhoomi Trivedi. The interrogation of the accused Abhishek Daude revealed that there are several such companies that sell followers and ‘likes’ on social media.

Mumbai Police have now decided to widen the scope of the investigation, and will probe what they are calling the “social media marketing influencers fraud”.

What led to the police to this alleged fraud?

Purported chat logs of a fake Instagram account created under the name of Bhoomi Trivedi that purported to show her in apparent negotiations for purchasing fake followers were allegedly used by Daude to lure more people to purchase followers.

When Trivedi found out about the alleged racket being run in her name, she approached the Mumbai Police Commissioner, and an offence was registered. The police then arrested Kurla resident Daude.
What emerged in the investigation?

According to police, it has revealed during investigation that Daude is part of a racket to create crores of fake identities on various social media platforms, and thereby produce fake performance statistics such as followers, comments, and views — all fake. The idea was to allegedly to inflate the performance statistics of ‘influencers’.

Daude had created more than 5 lakh fake followers for a total of 176 profiles on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, etc., in order to fraudulently project these profiles as those of ‘influencers’.
Is the fake followers industry big on the Internet?

Research by Swedish e-commerce start-up A Good Company and analytics firm HypeAuditor that assessed 1.84 million Instagram accounts across 82 countries last year found that the top three markets with the largest numbers of fake accounts were the United States (49 million), Brazil (27 million), and India (16 million). The researchers spoke to around 400 influencers, 60 per cent of whom confirmed that they had bought followers, likes, or comments at some point.

Apart from just social media influencers whose high follower count could make them hot property for brand promotions online, services of these fake accounts or bots (software application that imitates human behaviour) are suspected to be used by political parties, celebrities, and in film promotions.

These companies use fake accounts to start trending a particular hashtag, for example a movie’s name before a release date. These websites run ‘offers’ such as 500 Instagram likes for Rs 250, and 1,000 Twitter followers for Rs 1,449.
So what action can the Mumbai Police take?

This is going to be a challenge for the police, since the use of these services is so widespread. An officer said that it would be interesting to see, for example, whether the police are able to register cases against those managing social media accounts for political parties.

So far during investigation, police have estimated that there are more than 100 such Social Media Marketing (SMM) portals that provide fake followers — and identified 54, whom they will call for questioning. The police have said that they will likely book the companies that provide these services and, “depending on whether the client knew about these illegal methods or not”, a decision will be taken.

Is providing fake followers illegal, or merely unethical?

This is the first time that police have said they would register offences against those providing these services. Law enforcement agencies have so far not gone down this path. In Trivedi’s case, a fake profile of the singer was created — so, it was clearly a criminal offence of impersonation. However, there is no specific law in India to deal with cases involving only the buying and selling of fake accounts.

In the absence of a specific law, police can take recourse to Section 468 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with committing forgery of a document or electronic record for the purposes of cheating, Supreme Court advocate and cyber law expert Karnika Seth said. “Since a fake account is an electronic record that can be used to misrepresent, one could book a person under that,” she said. Cyber expert Vicky Shah, however, said that proving such a case in a court of law would be difficult.
How do other countries deal with this?

In January 2019, the Attorney General of New York state, Letitia James, announced a precedent-setting settlement over the sale of fake followers, ‘likes’, and views on social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, using fake activity from false accounts. In October 2019, the Singapore government notified the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, 2019, which includes measures to detect, control, and safeguard against coordinated inauthentic behaviour and other misuses of online accounts and bots.