Mumbai: After interrogating many celebrities in the “social media marketing influencers’ fraud” case, the Mumbai police has now started interrogating chiefs of many PR agencies. The investigation so far has revealed that many companies and PR firms have been involved in providing fake likes and followers, after which the Mumbai Police has decided to widen the scope of the investigation. The police have unearthed more than 50 companies involved in selling social media followers, likes and comments.

It is alleged that many high-profile celebrities, including top two Bollywood actresses, had hired services of these companies to increase their social media presence. Police have so far summoned 10 high profile personalities for questioning.

Cyber expert Ritesh Bhatia said: “Individuals and organisations employ various methods to increase their rankings in Google, boost their posts, get more clicks, likes, retweets and also have more followers which could be fake followers that can be easily bought online. Some of these fake followers can be actual humans, while others are bots. Buying of fake followers is not uncommon and we have seen almost all political parties and many influencers buying them. A simple Google search will lead you to many websites where you can buy 100 fake followers within seconds for the price of a cup of coffee.”

It all started with Bollywood playback singer Bhoomi Trivedi complaining about her fake profile on a social media platform after which Mumbai Police arrested a 20-year-old man name Abhishek Daude. In his interrogation, he revealed that there are several such companies that sell followers and “likes” on social media.

According to the police, Daude himself 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”.  As this is the first time such a case has been registered by Mumbai Police against social media marketing companies for providing fake likes and followers, many experts feel legal provisions are still required and there is vacuum in this area.

Advocate and former bureaucrat Abha Singh said, “Yes, the IT Act should have a few more provisions to tackle such type of cases. It’s a new phenomenon which our lawmakers had not thought of, I am sure. Creating fake followers involves a series of acts which include making fake identities or making identities in the name of some other persons without the knowledge of such persons or using fake photographs as identities. Therefore, it would involve both the sections of Indian Penal Code and Information Technology Act.

These sections would include Section 66 and Section 66C of the Information Technology Act; Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code related to impersonation and cheating, and Section 465, 467 and 471 related to forgery.” Fake profiles mean a profile on social media created with an intention to cheat or mislead the person interacting or engaging with that profile. This may be done with a dishonest intention of sexual exploitation or financial fraud or abuse, extracting benefits such as jobs, business propositions, and fake conversations.

Cyber specialist and advocate Vaishali Bhagwat said, “Fake followers mean creating a false profile with an intention to like or follow a celebrity or a person to enhance that person’s image, create a false and popular persona with an intention to cheat the public in believing in the larger-than-life image or the celebrity status of the person. This image is then used to secure work, commercial engagements etc. With this analysis, fake profiles and fake followers will be covered under the definition of cheating by personation under IPC Section 419 and 420 and also Section 67D of the IT Act.”

Balsing Rajput, Superintendent of Police, Maharashtra Cyber, said: “The IT Act mentions impersonation as crime and IPC has provisions for impersonation, forgery and cheating with dishonest intention. Giving a rosy picture to people with fake supporters and followers with impersonated or fake identities is nothing but deceiving people. I would request people to use the social media for good purposes and not to deceive people. It is  a good medium to express views and showcase talent and should be used for good purposes.”