The convention, coming amid a funding winter, was marketed as a gateway to international exposure for India and other nations’ entrepreneurial ecosystems. Popular content creators and celebrities such as the writers Ankur Warikoo and Chetan Bhagat, the YouTuber Praful Billore, and the entrepreneur Raj Shamani promoted it, getting startups excited.

On the day, though, the World Startup Convention turned out to be a scam: bereft of investors or ministers, poorly organized, and dubiously marketed. The event was a monumental and landmark case of how to spot red flags for such events in the creator economy,” Neel Gogia, the co-founder of influencer marketing agency IPLIX Media, told Quartz.

How aspiring Indian entrepreneurs and students were hoaxed in the quest for funding

The World Startup Convention was originally scheduled for Jan. 14-16., before it was postponed to March 24-26. Attendees flew in from cities like Nashik, Chennai, Darjeeling, and Surat, spending significant amounts of money on registration, stay, and travel.

Long queues, a tedious registration process, and several other delays later, the attendees were aghast at finding hardly any investors at Greater Noida’s India Expo Centre and Mart. The quality of programmes and event organization, too, proved to be subpar.

Some furious attendees eventually filed police complaints. Bambrew, a Bengaluru-based eco-friendly startup that sponsored the event to the tune of $60,000, is mulling legal action, Inc42 reported.

The organizers were asked to explain their posters—some of which featured Musk—and the claims in their influencer-led marketing.

Arjun Chaudhary, the event’s co-founder, defended the festival. “There were a lot of prestigious investors and when they saw the drama, they immediately left,” Chaudhary told The Indian Express. Chaotic protests compelled one minister of the Indian government to cancel his attendance at the last minute, Chaudhary said.

The media’s focus is now turning towards those who promoted the event, such as Bhagat and Warikoo. The fiasco—the startup world’s Fyre Festival—provided yet another lesson in the hollowness of influencer marketing.

India needs more ethical marketing from its influencers

Warikoo, a bestselling writer with 2.2 million followers on Instagram, denied any direct involvement in the event. He said his team had asked the organizers multiple times to take down ads involving him, after he disassociated from the event in January. However, according to him, they never complied.

Others, like Bhagat, have refused to comment.

This is not the first time social media influencers and content creators in India have been accused of irresponsible promotions. Several have been called out in connection with cryptocurrency-related advertising, online games, and even the financial markets.

In January, India’s consumer affairs ministry declared that such misleading promotion will attract a fine of up to $60,700 or a suspension of accounts for up to two years.

Experts believe that strict implementation of such regulations is key. “They have to go beyond what’s on paper and implement,” Ami Shah, co-founder of IntelliAssist, a digital marketing agency, told Quartz. “Having said that, the government is a crucial element in policymaking, but it has to be a combined effort from influencers, corporates, public and the government.”

Even content creators have to be mindful of providing appropriate disclosures to their audience, Gogia said.

“In such cases where influencers have disassociated themselves from a brand or event, we suggest [they] communicate this with their audience, especially if their content is still being used for the promotions of the event,” he said. “This helps ensure their followers and audience is not misled or scammed.”

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