Browsing the International Movie Database (IMDb) recently, techie Prashant Baid chanced upon a certain Subhankar Bagchi named in the “top cast” section of Ranbir Kapoor’s upcoming film Animal. Bagchi’s IMDb page shows him as part of other flicks like Badhai Do, Radhe Shyam, and Jersey. It claims he’ll feature in projects like Liger and Ganapath, too.
Yet, Baid found that Bagchi has had nothing to do with any of these movies. The young man was merely one of many imposters hiding in plain sight.
“Our guy here has manufactured his stature online by feeding misinformation to the sources that Google uses to construct a knowledge panel,” Baid explained. “He has fooled the mighty Google search algorithms into believing he is a person of certain notability.”
A Google knowledge panel—sidebars with photos, information, and links to social media profiles—pulls information from various online sources on topics, businesses, and people. Such a platform created by the Google algorithm, no less, improves one’s internet credentials multifold.
Baid found a few dozen more profiles with the same modus operandi. Blockbuster KGF: Chapter 2, for instance, was ridden with fake credits.
In any case, acting isn’t the only area these credential-hoarders target. Production management, sound, music, and other areas are all fair game. The pattern repeats itself across several movies.
“(This) led me to a whole new world of how so many young Indian men from small towns are gaming the system to manufacture their own fake online clout,” the techie wrote on Substack, a newsletter publishing platform, on Aug. 7.
Gaming IMDb pages
Crowdsourced IMDb lets anyone add and edit pages. And unlike Wikipedia, its edit history is not available for all to see.
In what Baid describes as “a case of IMDb vandalism,” people like Bagchi either add themselves to movies’ credits or use third-party services to get it done.
In any case, IMDb is often only a stepping stone.
Bagchi, for instance, has got his biography published on a few unreliable websites. One such, called issuewire.com, lets you publish one press release for free. This is then distributed to other sites and search engines. Many small-time creators have used this to pad up the online presence.
Another site, filmfreeway.com, has hundreds of profiles and biographies of young Indian men who have nothing to do with filmmaking.
Notably, Nepalis, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, too, have taken the path. One Bangladeshi YouTuber even shared explainer videos on how to do this.
All this is possible because “these websites have no verification or review process for submissions, but they have a high SEO (search engine optimisation) ranking,” according to Baid.
Getting Google knowledge panels
The eventual goal is to litter the internet with information about a person in a way that tricks Google into believing that they’re a person of eminence and creating knowledge panels (KPs) for them.
“Having their own Google Knowledge Panel gives them legitimacy in the eyes of their followers,” Baid wrote. “This is why many of them have links to their Google knowledge panel on their Instagram bios saying they’re verified by Google. This is a way to show their followers that they have credibility.”
At the time of publishing, Animal’s IMDb page no longer listed Bagchi in the credits, and IMDb appeared to have deleted his page. His Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook profiles are also gone. But his Google knowledge panel remains.
Who are the imposters?
A few things tie these imposters together, Baid’s research revealed:
- They posit themselves as cast or crew of big-budget Indian movies, but with few details of their exact role or contribution
- They’re all young men in their late teens or early 20s and mostly from small towns in northern India
- They’re mostly musicians or YouTubers with songs listed on all major music-streaming platforms
- Their biographies and profiles are also on the same handful of websites with identical content, as if copied from one another
- They all have their own Google knowledge panel
The “fake it till you make it” route potentially helps small-time musicians get more ears for their content, aspiring actors bag projects, and so on. Even if it doesn’t translate to offline businesses, internet fame is a lucrative bid in itself. After all, India’s influencer marketing sector is set to reach 2,200 crore rupees ($277 million) by 2025.
But as ingenious as it seems, “in the end, they are frauds who are misleading their social media followers with information about themselves that’s just not true,” Baid wrote. And because the platforms aren’t weeding them out, “the onus then falls upon us to perform our own due diligence before believing any goddamn thing we read online.”