The Big Bad World of Bought Likes & Trends

25 Aug,2020


By Bhuvi Gupta


Bhuvi Gupta

The business of news and entertainment is unique from other businesses as there is no underlying need for consumption and content is easily replaceable with similar alternatives. Hence, the entertainment industries have always relied heavily on glitz, gossip and glamour to garner consumption.


This has taken many avatars through the decades. In the early 2000s, the Times Group innovated and changed the PR landscape when they launched Medianet, renamed as Optimal Media Solutions (OMS) since. It was very successful for the both the media and entertainment industries, because of the blurred lines between ads and news. The audience was oblivious as long as gossip and entertainment was delivered and hence many a film were boosted due to entirely manufactured gossip on link-ups and skirmishes on set. TV news followed soon after. NDTV was the front-runner of branded content in TV with shows like Earth Hour, Greenathon etc. Today, weekend programming across English news channel almost entirely comprises such branded shows.


The digital equivalent of Medianet is the manufactured views, likes, followers and trends because the lines between the inorganic and organic are blurred. This is more dangerous than Medianet, because all social media platforms have Achilles’ heels which can be exploited to manufacture reach that is invisible even to the discerning viewer.


All this changed when last month, the Mumbai police launched an investigation into the 75 Lakhs worth of YouTube views purchased by Aditya Singh Sisodia aka Baadshah for his 2019 single, ‘Pagal’. The song launch was a mega-affair with influencer marketing campaigns on Instagram and TikTok, YouTube advertising and other dubious means employed in an attempt to break records. Baadshah claimed that ‘Pagal’ was the fastest video to reach 75 million views on YouTube, which was promptly shot down by them due to inorganic means employed. This has subsequently lead to the ongoing criminal case filed by the Mumbai police and the investigation thereafter. The case has opened a can of worms, as newer unethical practices of the digital ecosystem of the entertainment industry began slowly getting exposed.


To be honest, in 2020, Baadshah’s admission to buying views would not have come as a  shock to most of us. Even the undiscerning viewer sees enough chinks in the digital armour – screenshots of identical tweets from celebs (right down to grammatical errors) praising a government or a popular icon, TikTok’s Playstore ratings being brought down in a day and then restored are two of many examples. What is not common knowledge is the sheer mechanics and extent of what goes into digital influence manufacturing and the reasons behind it.


In May 2020, TikTok’s app store ratings were restored after Google deleted 80 Lakh negative comments made in the span of a week in response to the Galwan Valley skirmish. The Chinese app has since been banned in India.


Why do Indian Artists companies do this?

Creating a buzz in the entertainment business is crucial to remain relevant. Social media metrics have come to define the salability of the artist for producers and distributors. It is a flawed ecosystem exploited by all the players. To elucidate –


The problem with the Algorithm

View counts on YouTube, don’t differentiate between paid and unpaid views or the viewership duration (a view is counted after only 30 seconds of consumption). Views are a key metric for YouTube’s algorithms, especially when it comes to search result rankings and recommendations, which help drive organic views and hence generate revenue. Hence, paying for views is a natural choice because they help recoup advertising investments through organic views, while adding the credibility that higher view counts get.


Not only vanity metrics

For films, OTT and satellite TV, rights are often sold after movie trailers are released and the view metrics of the trailer, contribute to the negotiating power of the producer. Likewise, in the music industry, licensing deals, terms of contracts, concert tours and appearances are often measured basis song popularity. Hence, paying for YouTube views is a natural investment that pays for itself many times over.


The problem with the platforms

It serves social media platforms to have higher view counts because, it drives up daily traffic on the platform, while generating ad revenue. This problem of fake news, fake views, and bots serves social media portals which rely on user metrics to help set ad rates. In the absence of stringent laws, while popular social media platforms do make the right noises about removing bots and fake profiles they have little incentive to actually follow through.


It’s not a crime in India… not yet!

Many countries across the world like Singapore, France and Germany, are enacting strict cyber laws that punish hate-speech, threats, and impersonations (under which fake followers lie) as criminal offences, liable to both imprisonment and fines. In the absence of such laws in India, manufacturing inorganic views becomes dishonest but not illegal. While the fake likes industry has been thriving for the last few years, the case against Badshah may just be a watershed moment in the creation of cyberlaws, which will bring more transparency in Indian cyber space.


Till laws change, as a marketer, I leave you with my content checks to avoid being gamed. On YouTube, I check engagement (likes and comments as a percentage of views), for highly viewed content before investing the time to watch. If the number is low, it is safe to say that the views have been bought. And on Twitter, inorganically trended hashtags will have a majority of tweets with the same sentence structure and central thought – so a quick scan of tweets under a trending hashtag will help check ingenuity.


Bhuvi Gupta is a marketer with over 10 years across industries, of which the last six have been in Media & Entertainment. She has been a part of many launch marketing campaigns – specifically at the Times of India group, Republic TV and the latest in marketing a Bollywood film. She will write on A&M (mostly marketing, but often on advertising too) every other Tuesday. Her views here are personal. She tweets at @bhuvigupta3



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