Paid influence: How Tata & Wadia can trend on Twitter for less than 15K/hour

Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari | First published: 1 December 2016, 17:53 IST
Photo: Arya Sharma/Catch News

The fallout of Cyrus Mistry's firing doesn't seem to end. Since the news that he was no longer in charge of the Tata Group broke, accusations and counter-accusations have flown thick and fast. However, while the battle has chiefly been fought behind boardroom doors and within the pages of pink papers, the spat entered the twilight zone a few days ago when it shifted to Twitter.

A tale of 3 hashtags

But this fight wasn't between the protagonists themselves - Ratan Tata has a sparsely used Twitter handle while the key figures on the other side, Cyrus Mistry and Nusli Wadia, have no Twitter presence at all. Instead, it all began, as things often do on Twitter, with a poorly articulated hashtag - #Cyrus4governance.

Also read -Personal vendetta against me; prove allegations or face legal action: Nusli Wadia writes to Tata Sons

The existence of the hashtag is bizarre. That the unassuming and reticent Cyrus Mistry commands legions of supporters, enough to make the hashtag trend nationally is implausible. But things got even stranger when #Support4Tata popped up to take the sheen off the Mistry support. Things only got zanier when Nusli Wadia got involved in the whole fracas and #WADIATRUTHSTATALIES suddenly popped up.

A look at the tweets from each trend show people with surprisingly strong feelings on the issue, despite no evident involvement in the proceedings.

A closer examination of the trends, however, made one thing clear - none of them were organic in the least. Instead, they were, as most Twitter trends in India are, the result of paid 'influencers' retweeting garbled, poorly articulated statements of support, usually with a link to an article espousing their side's argument.

Manufactured trends

Paid influencers are easy to identify. Their Twitter bios are usually an agglomeration of 1-word descriptors. Their timelines, meanwhile, have little in the way of personality. Instead, the vacuum is filled with an endless stream of endorsements in sync with the days trends. From a car to demonetisation to, as in this case, warring businessmen, they will endorse anything for a price.

In this case, just to make sure, we tried recruiting some of Ratan Tata's "supporters" ourselves, just to see how easy it was. The replies didn't take long. From Rs 7 to Rs 100, influencers were willing to do our bidding for a pittance. One influencer, who'd been fairly active in the #Support4Tata trend, informed us that he controlled a network of influencers, and offered us package deals. A top-10 trend, he informed us, would cost between Rs 10-15 thousand per hour.

Just another day in paid Twitter trends

One influencer, aghast that we were individually approaching influencers, passed up the opportunity herself, giving us the contact of a man who commanded an influencer network. "I believe in good deeds!" she informed us when asked why she'd pass us the chance.