Infibeam IPO: Why Twitter’s Dirty Secret — Paid Tweets — is not funny anymore

Twitter users are quick to diss journalists. Presstitutes, we are called. Idiots of the highest order. The list is long. But you still love Twitter.

It has played a crucial role in shaping public debate, taken control away from traditional media, and made journalism more participatory and accountable. But there’s a big problem that is quietly swept under the carpet — paid tweets.

Giving social media ‘influencers’ money to promote your brand isn’t really new (hello, Reliance Jio). So why am I talking about it now? Because today is Infibeam’s IPO. The e-commerce company is raising about Rs 450 cr from the public markets to fuel growth.

If you follow tech Twitter, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #WeSupportInfibeam doing the rounds. It even trended for a bit.

This is not a coincidence. It is the result of an orchestrated campaign. I asked one of the influencers who’ve been saying good things about the company on Twitter.

She’s not the only one. I had a similar exchange with a few others asking if Infibeam paid for this. Seriously, who are these people and why do they give a damn about Infibeam’s IPO? I did a bit of digging and found out that a digital media agency has been paying social media influencers to tweet all this. Here’s a screenshot of the emails this agency sent out to these people.

Screenshot of the e-mail sent to influencers.

Another line in the email says:

We need to trend Hashtag. It should be look generic

This is all meticulously planned. The payment? Rs. 150, with the promise of more money if required. The email also goes on to tell the influencers which links to they should share, along with multiple other guidelines. I wrote to the the people who handle media at Infibeam. No response.

Funnily enough, it appears that a rival agency has commissioned another hashtag called #OverpricedInfibeamIPO, and some influencers got behind that campaign as well.

Screenshot of a rival social media campaign.

It’s a full-blown, bloody battle, a Wild West of paid media. Among the few good men and women, there are hired guns with no scruples out there. I mean, what are the rules here?

As a business journalist, I’ve done my fair share of reporting. At a financial daily, this is considered grossly unethical. When you join a paper, you are asked to disclose your shareholding and even sell shares off to avoid potential conflict of interest. You are not allowed to have equity in the companies you write about.

As much as India needs a successful tech IPO, Infibeam’s public offering is a bit overpriced and there are risks involved. Despite all its alleged bias, the mainstream media has done its job by analysing the IPO based on available facts and laying out the risks for the public to see.

Take for instance what Jwalit Vyas has written in The Economic Times

At an annualised FY16 sales of Rs 350 crore and net profit of Rs 13 crore, demanding a market capitalisation of about Rs 2,300 crore appears to be too ambitious.

Unlike our paid Twitter influencers, Vyas didn’t pull out the thesis from thin air. He’s taken the trouble to go through the prospectus of the company and giving the reader a sense of what the market is like.

Mobis Philipose in Mint has also cautioned investors while presenting a fair and detailed take on the company. Mint also reported that two investment banks walked out of the IPO.

This crucial role that the media plays is undermined every time you call someone a presstitute. Contrast this with what’s trending: Infibeam ra-ra. The retail investors (in this case 10% of the issue) are being shown only one side of the story. Is it really worth it? Rs 150?

As social media gains its rightful place in public discourse, don’t the ‘influencers’ need to behave responsibly? Seriously. Think about it, in this case you could be influencing someone’s savings for retirement or children’s education. I’m not saying don’t make money off the system which is rigged anyway. But at least do the disclosures right.

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