New Delhi: An undercover operation by Cobrapost has exposed how IT companies in India are using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help politicians artificially boost their popularity, gain followers and engage in smear campaigns.
In a sting operation named 'Operation Blue Virus' conducted by the web portal, Cobrapost exposed about two dozen such companies which are running the shady business of online reputation management, Editor Aniruddha Bahal said in a media release on Friday.
Among other things, the IT companies offered their clients a fake following on Facebook and Twitter, and indulged in negative publicity against a political leader or a party, or a corporate house, at the behest of their opposite camp, for money.
Bahal said his colleague and Associate Editor Syed Masroor Hasan posed as a front man for a fictitious politician from an opposition party, and approached over two dozen IT companies to engage them in an image building exercise on social media before the assembly elections. He also entrusted them with the task of destroying the opponent's reputation with negative publicity to help 'Netaji' win not only assembly election with a handsome margin but also his party president's trust, to pave the way for a Lok Sabha ticket in 2014, and then a Cabinet berth. Money is no constraint.
Bahal claimed that the companies offered the following services:
- They would generate fake following on Netaji's Facebook page, running into lakhs, by creating fake profiles or buying likes from the community of netizens.
- They would create a good fan-following on Twitter, by buying packages of followers.
- They would not allow a negative comment to appear on Facebook page.
- They would do negative publicity against Netaji's opponent, employing methods not necessarily ethical or legal.
- They would post the negative content online from countries such as the United States or Korea, to avoid detection of its source.
- They would use assembled computers for negative campaign and destroy them after the project is over.
- They would use proxy codes on their computers such that their locations change every hour, making detection impossible.
- They would create fake profiles of Muslims to engage Muslims and change their views about Netaji and his party.
- They offered to make the promotional videos go viral on YouTube.
- They would put at Netaji's disposal an in-house database of voters, categorized according to their vocation, area of residence, age, income level and religion.
- They would use offshore IPs and servers to avoid tracing of the source of online content.
- They would hack into the computers of other individuals for posting defamatory content using their IPs
- They would use Internet-based messaging system to circumvent TRAI regulations on mass SMS. This they would do using short codes instead of actual phone numbers to mask the identity of the sender.
- They would accept payments only in cash to avoid paper trail to ensure that no connection is established between them and their client.
The portal alleged that an IT professional, Bipin Pathare, not only promised to give them a booth-wise demographics of voters to help them with booth management but also not hesitate to detonate a bomb, or spread rumours of a riot situation, forcing Muslim voters to remain indoors on polling day, thus leaving ample scope for bogus voting.
Bahal quoted Pathare as saying that he helped one Praveen Jara win election by intimidating and disenfranchising Muslim voters. Bahal also named Abhishek Kumar, who he claimed is working for Campaign Modi on social media, is planning to make a defamatory content on Rahul Gandhi to go viral on social media a few days before elections.
Priyadarshan Pathak, another online reputation management professional exposed in Operation Blue Virus, agreed to start a smear campaign against a fictitious company for Rs. 92000. The portal said the campaign included expletives, complete with cartoons and caricatures, and allegations, among others, of money laundering, allowing terrorist to use its equipment and defrauding its passengers in the name of charity.
Cobrapost on the legal options
Many of these practices constitute a crime under the ambit of existing laws such as the Indian Penal Code, the Information Technology Act 2000, the Income Tax Act 1961 and the Representation of the People Act 1951.
For instance, publication of negative comments or derogatory jokes constitutes an act of defamation and as such is punishable under the IPC; the use of fake IDs to get Internet connection or domain name not only constitutes cheating by personation and cheating to dishonestly induce delivery of a property but also constitutes forgery and as such is punishable under various sections of the IPC, namely, Sections 419, 420 and 465.
Transmission of information that is grossly offensive or is of a menacing character or transmission of information which is known to be false to cause annoyance, inconvenience, insult and injury is also punishable under Section 66A of the IT Act 2000.
Hacking is punishable under Section 66 of the IT Act. Acts like detonating a bomb in minority locality or spread of rumour of such threat with purported objective of stopping them from exercising their electoral rights is punishable under Section 125 of the RPA 1951, so is booth capturing under Section 135A of the Act.
Even discussing booth capturing or buying votes would constitute evidence of conspiracy to commit the said offence under Section 120B of the IPC. Cash transactions constitute a willful attempt to evade tax and are punishable under Section 276 of the IT Act, so is concealment of such transactions involving falsification of books of accounts under Section 277A.
The website also claimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party is leading from the front in its social media campaign, if the 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.
Social activist Tehseen Poonawalla who has filed an FIR against Twitter is now filing a petition in a court based on Cobrapost expose. He says, "My petition prays that there be some sort of regulations that govern social media. It can be easily misused as the Cobrapost sting has shown as also the cases that I have filed, to spread hate. We have seen this recently also in Muzaffarnagar. Besides regulations are also needed to ensure there is no child sexual abuse on social media. In Germany, one cannot tweet pro-Nazi tweets and across Europe, no racial comment. Why can't we have such restrictions in our country."
Tweets by @cobrapost