It has long been speculated that shady operators play the social media
to make and tar reputations, help netas to help damage rivals during elections and even trigger riots – all for a fee. Now, a sting operation conducted byCobrapost
shows that such deadly players do exist and carry out online hit jobs for a price, ranging from a few lakhs to a couple of crores of rupees.
The sting, codenamed Operation Blue Virus, brings home cold truths on about two dozen IT companies that put social media to nefarious use.
Wearing the hat of a politician’s henchman, Cobrapost associate editor Syed Masroor Hasan asked these IT companies to launch a branding exercise for a tainted netaji on social media before the elections. Netaji would want to see his opponent maligned, never mind if it borders on character assassination, to help him win the polls.
“None of the IT companies turned down my propositions,” says Hasan. On his bidding, one IT professional drummed up a damaging blitz against a fictitious company. Another agreed to tar his boss, Cobrapost founder Aniruddha Bahal
, even after he was told who Bahal was.
To help netaji add online muscle, the companies offered to create fakeFacebook
pages and get their team to click likes or outsource the task for a fee. They proposed using a virus to swell the likes, to create fan following on Twitter, either getting their team to work on it or by buying packages of followers. Negative comments wouldn’t be allowed to show up. They’d make promotional videos go viral on YouTube and send bulk SMSs and emails, and if need be, coerce site administrators.
They would, Cobrapost was told, destroy the reputation of netaji’s rival, even make fake videos showing him in a compromising position go viral, post negative information on his website and bring it down days before the polls.
These offers were audacious enough. But they pale before the ones made by some others. Cobrapost says Bipin Pathare of Mumbai’s Om Consultancy Services offered to put at netaji’s disposal software that splices electorate-demographic data with addresses and contact details.
Netaji could use this to identify a locality where a certain community is in a majority, Cobrapost was told. They can be forced to stay indoors by spreading a malicious rumour or detonating a crude bomb.
This helps effective booth management; in other words rig elections. Here’s what Pathare tells Cobrapost: “Haan issey toh yehi pata chalta kaun sa road pe kitna log XXX (he names the community) rehta hai … aisa mahaul set karna hai … uske andar bhi nahin aye… kuch gadbad hai … logon ko kuch ek rumour wo karne ka hai… udhar gadbad ho raha hai … bahar mat nikalna (This helps us know how many live on which road … we have to set an atmosphere… so they don’t enter the area … there is some disturbance … a rumour will have to be spread there is some disturbance … don’t venture out).” Pathare claims he has helped a local politician win an election using this method.
Professionals like Mohit Mahajan of Cloudmay India, a Noida-based IT company, have software which allows one to reach thousands in a flash. Such tools can be manipulated to disastrous consequences when the technology that drives social media helps users mask identity and veil their actions.
Professionals told Cobrapost on camera how they cover their tracks using offshore IP addresses or servers to upload content. They also use proxy codes, or simply hack others’ computers. They often use assembled laptops and disable tracking devices. Job done, the machines are destroyed. These tricks leave no tell-tale signs.
Last year’s exodus of Northeastern people from Bangalore and Hyderabad is a case in point. A shocked nation saw on TV thousands throng railway stations to board Northeast-bound trains. An SMS rumour that went viral triggered the scare. The incident spurred Cobrapost to carry out its undercover operation.
“It was in our knowledge that social media is being used for activities not so social. Last year we saw the exodus of Northeast people from cities like Bangalore sparked by a malicious rumour on SMS with no certain origin of source, we knew we had a story at hand,” Bahal says. Another instance of social media abuse leading to communal tension is the recent Muzaffarnagar riot.
How social media can be misused to tar an individual or a corporate house was borne out in two instances, although all IT companies interviewed agreed to negative publicity for money.
In one instance, Hasan got Priyadarshan Pathak of Websol Media, a Gurgaon company, to start a social media smear campaign against Mercury Aviation, a fictitious company, peppered with cartoons accusing it of cheating passengers, money laundering and helping terrorists.
Pathak sent threatening mails to its management. This he did for Rs 92,000, of which he was paid Rs 45,000 in two tranches. This job was done from the US, hacking an individual’s computer with one Jitendra Dalal’s help.
Pathak explained to Cobrapost: “Inka naam Jitendra Dalal hai … email address … diya hai kyoki unke paas poori team baithti hai toh fir kisi ke bhi system se wo apna … wahan pe kya hai ki saare fiber optics lagte hain … humare yahan toh apne naam pe connection lena hai … haan … jaise aapke naam se connection hai toh IP se pata chal jaata hai ki kis bande ke naam pe connection hai … wahan pe kya hota hai Google ke fiber optics hote hain … naam nahin dena hota hai wahan pe payment karni hoti hai ek code mil jaata hai … hum jis system mein code daalenge wahan pe net aa jayega (His name is Jitendra Dalal… I have given him my email because he has a team … he does this from anybody’s system … They use fibre optics there … here we have to get a connection in our name … you can know in whose name a connection is on… but
Google uses fiber optics… you don’t have to give your name there … you pay and are allotted a code … when we enter the code in anybody’s system we get Internet there).”
This is how technology helps these players keep authorship of malicious content untraceable. Imagine the damage if such vicious propaganda is unleashed against a real corporate house or personality. The Cobrapost sting shows how a real entity can be demolished. Abhishek Kumar of Delhi’s Virinchi Software agreed to launch a calumny campaign against Bahal for Rs 10 lakh, even after he was told who Bahal was. The smear campaign accused the Cobrapost founder of not paying his staff, defrauding a former employer of crores and even having a hand in a murder case in the storybook town of Jubliganj. He was paid Rs 10,000 as advance. He accepted money on camera with these words: “Kaam ho jayega … jab paise pakad liye hain maine (The job will be done … when I have accepted money).
The price of online reputation management depends on intensity and duration. Pathare, for instance, charges Rs 10 lakh, excluding negative campaigns. “Lekin wo Facebook ka aadmi jo bahar baithta hai, uska sarhe saath lakh charge karta hoon main (But, for the Facebook team sitting out there, I charge Rs 7.5 lakh),” he told Cobrapost.
At a unit price of Rs 10 for Facebook and Rs 25 for Twitter, Abhishek charges about Rs 50 lakh: “kum se kum 10 rupaye ka ek like minimum maan ke chalo … Twitter
pe ek unit aapko kum se kum 25 rupaye ka padta hai (A like will cost Rs 10 … a unit on Twitter will cost you Rs 25).” Negative publicity costs double, about 1.5 crore: “Maan lo agar ye kaam karenge ismein uska double baithega (Suppose, we do this work [negative publicity], it costs double).”
Trikam Patel of Triams in Bangalore will not charge less than Rs 3.5 crore. “Rs 3 crore all over India,” he said. Throw in Rs 50 lakh extra and he will deliver a smear campaign: “Aur 50 zyada de dete hain toh aur ek mera wo bhi ho jayega (Add Rs 50 lakh, I will do that [negative publicity]).”
Clients these companies service include corporate houses, NGOs, tainted government officials and the political class. Patel has this shocker: Some IT companies earn as much as 3% of their revenues from politicians.
If politicians felt slighted by an EC decision to bring social media campaigns under a code of conduct, they had a reason. But with this expose, EC stands vindicated.
How reliable is this online deception? The confessions of Patel are self-revealing: “Kahin news channel ko pata chal gaya ki bhai ye mantri log aise marketing kar rahe hain zabrdasti marketing kar raha hai … toh logon ka dil utar jaata hai (If some news channel know of this … the ministers are marketing themselves using these shady methods, they will lose the trust of the public).” 1. Abhishek Kumar | Virinchi Software, Delhi
2. Bipin Pathare | Om Consultancy, Mumbai
3. Trikam Patel | Triams, Bangalore
4. Priyadarshan Pathak | Websol Media, Gurgaon