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A year after Cobrapost did a sting operation on the premier media houses of the country and showed how they were willing to act as propaganda machines and even go to the extent of communal polarisation in exchange of money, it came out with Operation Karaoke, another sting operation which exposed some three dozen Bollywood actors as well as TV actors who were willing to promote particular political parties in exchange of money.

Cobrapost undercover agents presented themselves as representatives of a proxy PR firm based out of Delhi. They approached a large number of actors and proposed that they indirectly promote particular political parties for exchange of money. These celebrities were told that they will put out tweets and posts from their social media accounts and promote particular policies and parties. But it should look like the actor’s own opinion and not a paid job.

The actors exposed by this sting are playback singers Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Baba Sehgal and Mika Singh; actors Jackie Shroff, Shakti Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Sonu Sood, Ameesha Patel, Mahima Choudhury, Shreyas Talpade, Puneet Issar, Surendra Pal, Pankaj Dheer and his son Nikitin Dheer, Tisca Chopra, Deepshikha Nagpal, Akhilendra Mishra, Rohit Roy, Rahul Bhat, Salim Zaidi, Rakhi Sawant, Aman Verma, Hiten Tejwani and his wife Gauri Pradhan, Evelyn Sharma, Minisha Lamba, Koena Mitra, Poonam Pandey, Sunny Leone; comedians Raju Srivastava, Sunil Pal, Rajpal Yadav, Upasana Singh, Krushna Abhishek and Vijay Ishwarlal Pawar; choreographer Ganesh Acharya and dancer Shambhavana Seth.

The four exceptions to this group were Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Raza Murad and Saumya Tandon. When approached by the undercover journalist to promote political parties in exchange for money, these actors denied and said that they would prefer to follow their conscience.

Actors like all others have the political right to support a particular political party. They are often hired to appear in ads for promoting government policies, they are made brand ambassadors and even hired to campaign. Nitish Bhardwaj of the Mahabharata fame campaigned for the BJP dressed as Lord Krishna. While this political leaning is nothing new, what exactly is problematic about the latest sting?

To start with, actors were told to “tweak” content provided by the proxy PR organisation and peddle as their own opinions. It is to be remembered that they were not bothered about the authenticity or the credibility of the content. We have witnessed enough fake doctored videos and pictures from the accounts of respectable politicians. These actors were to be paid to peddle messages without even bothering to check whether it is true or not.

They were also told to defend respective political parties on various controversial issues including rape, bridge collapse etc. While actor Puneet Issar said that he was capable of ‘destroying’ the opponents of BJP, singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya known for his antics even proposed to do short inciting videos which would make people’s blood boil. Bhattacharya is known for his abusive online persona. He was even arrested for issuing abusive threats to many women journalists. He went on record to say that he will make video on triple talaq to demonise Muslim men and glorify the government of the day. He also went on to say that he endorses the views of BJP MLA from Hyderabad who openly stated that Rohingyas fleeing persecution should be shot dead!!

These celebrities were expected to peddle such views which might even promote divisiveness in the people. And they were doing it in exchange of hefty sum of money. Actors may have political opinion. Kamal Hasan, Prakash Raj, Om Puri and so many others have stood by their beliefs with utmost conviction. But when that conviction is faked and has a price tag, question is bound to arise about the conscience of these actors.

These actors have lakhs of followers on various social media platforms. They are great influencers. Their choices and criticisms have an impact on their fanbase. People look upto them. In such a case this sting operation exposes how far these actors can actually mould public opinion. It is not very different from peddling paid news and is equally dangerous.

Another important aspect is how the actors wanted to be paid. When demonetisation was wracking havoc on the lives of the common people, many actors including Shakti Kapoor came out in support of the government and reiterated that a move like demonetisation will curb black money. In the sting, almost all actors demanded to be paid in cash. Payment ranged from Rs 2-50 lakhs per message, to a few crores. And actors like Shakti Kapoor, Pankaj Dheer, Minisha Lamba etc wanted to be paid in cash so that they can evade tax.

While Twitteratti and other netizens were discussing about #Bikaoobollywood, till this was written no actors named in the sting operation has responded except Sunny Leone and Sonu Sood. In the sting operation, Sunny Leone said that she is ready to post the messages if her husband is given the status of Overseas Citizen of India by Modiji. When exposed, she slammed the website and said that she will never promote any political party indirectly.

Sonu Sood complained that only edited parts of the video are being shown. In the video he is clearly seen asking to increase his fees from 1.5 cr to 2.5 cr. He stated that such endorsement from Bollywood celebrities was a normal thing in B town. But he still went on to say that he will not promote any political party.

Film actors can endorse political parties and specific policies. They can also get paid for it. But the bottom line is it will have to be accounted for. Such endorsement may be just another paid job for an actor and his/her fan has the right to know it. If that is not the case and actors peddle posts in exchange of money, one is left wondering how are they different from paid trolls who almost act like bots and found much mention in Swati Chaturvedi’s book I Am a Troll!!

Parvin Sultana   works as an Assistant Professor in P B College, Assam. She blogs at parvinsultana.blogspot.com and can be reached at parvin.jnu@gmail.com)

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