Blue ticks are what users see next to a verified social media account — on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, for instance. These social media firms pin blue ticks on users only if they are authentic, if their account is active, and if they are notable. Think Amitabh Bachchan, you will get the picture.
Now, blue ticks are being sold on private marketplaces. Individuals and agencies are offering social media verification services for a fee — from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh in India and many times higher for users in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
Their promise to users: help get a verified badge next to their social media accounts.
These agencies and individuals operate in stealth mode, often listing their services on communities that do not always pop up by doing a basic Google search.
An ET investigation found sites like mpsocial.com, blackhatworld.com and swapd.co had posts from users offering verification services for a hefty fee. Several digital marketing agencies are said to be providing this service, too, without making any noise about it.
Meanwhile, a local marketing agency, Fametick Media, openly brags about providing “technical support” for users in getting a verification badge, on its Facebook and Instagram page.
Industry experts estimate that these individuals and agencies could be getting at least 1 million annual queries for buying a blue tick, potentially representing Rs 3,000 crore worth of business queries.
(Note: An earlier version of this story said that “Industry experts are potentially pegging the size of the fake verification industry at Rs 3,000 crore in India alone.” It has been rectified for clarity. We regret the error.)
With micro-blogging platform Twitter recently unveiling plans to resume its verification process which it had paused in 2017, these numbers are likely to go up, the experts said.
How do the manipulators operate?
While listing the three broad parameters — authentic, active, notable — that most social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram use to give out a blue tick, they also specify that it should be a highly searched account or featured in multiple news sources.
It is the “notable” feature that the manipulators primarily use to their advantage.
They beef up a user’s follower count and engagement numbers using social media automation tools like jarvee.com which help in buying multiple bot accounts to follow a user, among other things. Next, they help publish sponsored posts for the user across a bunch of online and offline publications. Users then disingenuously flaunt this branded content as actual press coverage, which these platforms seem to have missed while screening a verification request.
During its investigation, ET spotted several verified accounts on Instagram where these blue- ticked users bragged about being featured in well-known publications on their profiles and posted screenshots of the coverage even though they were clearly sponsored posts.
Two such users — @devenbapna and @manpreet_singhg — made changes to their bio within 12 hours of ET reaching out to them, inquiring about their blue ticks. While @devenbapna removed a few publication names from his bio, @manpreet_singhg removed the mention of it altogether both from his bio and feed.
In less than 24 hours of ET sharing examples of such accounts with Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing platform removed the verified badges of two suspicious accounts — @ambergandotra and @amel_elezovic — that were flagged.
“We will take action against those accounts that violate our community guidelines, as and when reported,” a Facebook company spokesperson told ET. “Additionally, we’d like to reiterate that we will never request payment for verification or reach out to ask you to confirm your verification.”
For this reason, Akram Tariq Khan has refrained from obtaining a blue tick via inauthentic means. “It puts you at risk of losing your verification at any point in time,” says Khan, co-founder of UAE-based apparel company, YourLibaas. “Given how we are seriously pursuing business, it would have been counterproductive,” he adds. Khan had gone down this rabbit hole out of sheer curiosity recently.
Speaking of rabbit holes, we discovered @amel_elezovic’s page while going through one of @ambergandotra’s recent posts which had comments from a lot of verified accounts that seemed equally suspicious. @ambergandotra had over 213,000 followers for 136 posts whereas @amel_elezovic had over 45,000 followers with a grand total of two posts on that account.
Soon, a pattern started to emerge among most of these undeservedly verified accounts.
Thousands of followers, but very few posts. They all had an Instagram Story about their press coverage pinned on their profiles. Their posts attracted comments from a lot of blue-tick accounts that, on digging deeper, turned out to be dubious too.
One blue tick, many interpretations
The verification feature on Facebook and Instagram is for brands, organisations and public figures who the tech platforms “know to be at risk of impersonation or consider to be in the public interest”.
The verified badge on Twitter merely lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic, a Twitter spokesperson says.
However, most users see a blue tick as a status symbol, says Sneha Mehta, community manager at social media management company Crowdfire.
“A lot of new talent that enters the creator ecosystem enquires about getting a blue tick because they think it’ll instantly help them stand out among a horde of creators,” says Neel Gogia, co-founder of influencer marketing agency IPLIX Media.
To an uninitiated user, a verified badge conveys that the platform is endorsing them, that this person knows their stuff, says Prashant Puri, CEO of digital marketing agency AdLift.
For Abhinandan Shah from Pune, a blue tick is an indication that the account is not spam. “There is a tacit expectation that blue tick accounts will not engage back, as they have a huge following. There is often also a moment of pride when someone verified follows you,” says the tech professional at a leading financial services company.
Delhi-based Vishakha Goswami feels verified accounts tend to behave responsibly. “There is no or less threat of virtual crime with them,” says the independent communications consultant.
Creating a trust deficit
In the wrong hands, however, this blue tick, gained fraudulently, can be grossly misused.
Imagine someone doling out financial or medical advice or spreading political propaganda through an undeservedly verified account.
“I vividly remember how this impacted Twitter during the crypto rally of 2017,” says Hugo Amsellem, Paris-based founder of social media management company Atitlan, referring to blue-tick accounts promoting misleading information related to cryptocurrency.
Further, verified accounts on Twitter shared more content from deceptive websites than ever in 2020, recent research from The German Marshall Fund of the United States, published by international tech-focused publication Axios, showed.
Experts urge platforms to inculcate AI-enabled and human-backed review processes.
On its part, “Twitter plans to use both automated and human review processes to ensure that it is reviewing applications thoughtfully and in a timely manner.”
But monitoring the credibility of every account will require multiple layers of checks, especially in today’s age of misinformation.
Many reckon only enforcing better guidelines can drain the swamp.
Gogia of IPLIX suggests press coverage should no longer be a metric to determine someone’s verification worthiness. “That’s what has given rise to this underground industry in the first place because people struggle to get published,” he says, adding that verification should be decided on the merit of the user content.
“It should be as simple as a KYC.”