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It is widely assumed that a systematic and extensive, Russia-led campaign to spread misinformation using social media platforms and other digital tools played a crucial role in swaying American public opinion and was one of the factors that contributed to the shock election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In fact, much more than just ‘assumed’ as some of the world’s most powerful and credible intelligence agencies have gone on record to confirm the same.

This growing phenomenon of organized cyber misrepresentation is also suspected to have played a role in many other disruptive events around the world. Among these is Brexit, the UK’s unexpected vote to leave the European Union that continues to spread dissension and paralysis in what was once a mighty colonial power that virtually ruled the world.

With that, we leave our reportage on international geopolitics and revert to our domain of matters relevant to the Indian film trade!

The globe-trotting intro to this note was intended to drive home the point that if the power of social media can be manipulated to tamper with elections in the most powerful country in the world or to figuratively tear apart a continent, isn’t it within the realm of possibility that the same can be misused against us, the Indian film fraternity? And if so, do we need to be in a state of constant vigil against malevolent operations that seek to unfairly target, and bring down, our films?

And that really isn’t an alarmist, hypothetical question. In the recent past, we have seen a concerted effort to spread negativity around some of our releases by attributing fake and damaging reviews about them to critics and news organisations.

Often, elaborate efforts are taken to perpetuate these shams and give them a veneer of authenticity by creating dummy social media profiles and even websites that are replicas of the actual people/publications supposedly making these negative critiques. The virus thus incubated spreads rapidly as genuine users of these platforms share/repost these messages assuming them to be true, thereby leading their followers to in turn believe that these reviews are credible. As they say, a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.

This effort is not restricted to misrepresenting media critics. One often sees a glut of negative reviews supposedly from members of the public who have watched a film but the way in which these are similarly if not identically worded – not to mention that sometimes these comments start popping up even before the film in question has been released in theatres! – seems to suggest a deliberate effort to attack the makers where it hurts most: at the box office.

A combination of factors makes such disinformation a very potent threat. On one hand, the consumer today has a plethora of entertainment options, including in the domain of audio visual content. Further, the price of a cinema outing – especially for new releases – is often steeper than for other recreational alternatives. There is, therefore, a substantial and growing segment of audience members who actively seek positive affirmation about the quality of the films on offer before they make their purchase decision and, increasingly, they are relying on their social media feeds to help them decide.

Before we go any further, let us emphatically state that what we are deliberating here is manufactured or agenda-driven negativity, not bad reviews per se. The Indian film industry would be the first to acknowledge that just as some of our films are good and entertaining, very many of them are shoddy and insipid fare.

Moreover, our films are commercial products made with the express intention of public consumption and therefore the paying audience has every right to broadcast its displeasure with a film that they do not find satisfactory. And public opinion is neither a one-way street nor without its upside – the film industry is the biggest beneficiary when the opposite happens i.e. people like what they see and amplify their positive feedback on social media platforms, leading to a surge in collections as the word-of-mouth travels. Indeed, this consumer-led buzz has arguably been the biggest factor behind the recent spate of sleeper hits that have managed to punch way above their perceived potential at the box office.

Finally, on a philosophical level, an industry that has so often had to fight tooth and nail (alas, not always successfully) to protect its own right to freedom of expression from the Censors’ scissors or the made-for-publicity outrage of some fringe group or the other would be the last to trample on others’ right to express their opinions.

With that clarified, let us return to the subject at hand – the danger posed by vested interests launching elaborate disinformation campaigns to target our films.

In our opinion, it is of critical importance that the film fraternity be aware of – and more importantly, find ways to counter – this damaging phenomenon while it is still in its infancy because one suspects that this menace will only grow exponentially in the very near future.

It is admittedly not an easy challenge to take on given the literally millions of posts published virtually every moment on myriad digital platforms. No less daunting is the prospect of sifting through this information deluge to ascertain which comment/comment maker is genuine and which one is indicative of a deliberate, malicious effort to mislead potential consumers and therefore needs to be called out as fake.

But, just as it is with the scourge of film piracy, the seeming impossibility of the battle is no reason for us to concede defeat. Instead, it is a clarion call for us to armour up, hunker down and fight the good fight.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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