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The murky underbelly of rural India's creator economy

Online content creators from rural areas of the country are celebrities in their own rights. Shivani Kumari (left) and Karan Patidar have several thousands of followers either on Instagram or YouTube.Premium
Online content creators from rural areas of the country are celebrities in their own rights. Shivani Kumari (left) and Karan Patidar have several thousands of followers either on Instagram or YouTube.

  • Gullible social media creators who hail from remote villages of the country have to confront touts and scams
  • Like creators, their followers, too, come mainly from small towns and could be a target of sophisticated scams. Innocent people who follow influencers may end up losing money

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BENGALURU : After he shot to fame with his videos on TikTok, Karan Patidar—a social media content creator from Palwada village in Madhya Pradesh—began to garner millions of followers online. He was soon a celebrity in his village and a role model for many other content creators in rural India.

With four million followers on TikTok, Patidar—who lives in a small brick house, with his sisters and mother often seen cooking on a clay stove in the backdrop of his videos—represented life in the hinterland.

In the aftermath of the ban on TikTok in India, Patidar— like many other creators—started an Instagram account where he redirected his loyal set of 70,000 followers. Even with a following that size and videos that received millions of views, Patidar didn’t know how to capitalize on his new-found popularity. So, when he was approached by a “celebrity manager" who promised to amplify his reach and manage his account, he hoped for things to get better soon.

“I was hopeful that I’d finally be able to make some money, but instead I lost my own money," says Patidar whose family was barely able to make ends meet at the time.

Even after a few months of hiring the celebrity manager at a very exorbitant price, he did not see any significant increase in engagement on his social media accounts or any indication of monetization either through his Instagram or YouTube accounts and no signs of getting a verified Instagram account. Patidar finally questioned his manager about this, only to get blocked out of his own account and ghosted by the person who managed his account.

Among other things, Patidar was promised a blue tick on Instagram (a confirmation that the account is authentic), an increase in number of followers, brand promotions through his social media accounts, a music video and a dinner with celebrities in New Delhi. Patidar says he borrowed from well-wishers and gave his manager around 1.5 lakh, a huge amount for someone in his economic bracket, over a period of four months.

After disappearing for months and blocking Patidar’s number, his manager eventually did reach out to him after some mutual contacts intervened and promised to pay back the money.

“He seemed well connected and easy to trust," says Patidar, adding that at the time there was no written contract between them. He didn’t know that he should be asking for one. Patidar says for now he’s relieved that the person is paying him back and wants to put this whole episode behind him.

Patidar is a case study in India’s exploding content creator ecosystem. There are many like him—popular with millions of followers on various platforms but equally clueless and gullible in the booming creator economy.

After the ban on TikTok, the hinterland content creators who had a tryst with fame finally found home in the other platforms that came to replace the Chinese short video platform. To be sure, they are also sought out by these new platforms that are ready to pay them a decent compensation for their content. Creators are promised anywhere between 50,000 and 700,000 per month by Indian platforms that have seen a huge influx of venture capital money in the short form content market.

But it wasn’t just the platforms that had discovered them.

These creators who had unlocked the unpenetrated user base of the next billion new internet users in India also came under the radar of scamsters and frauds who lure them with promises of movie offers, brand contracts, verified social media accounts and a doubling down on followers and reach.

Creators coming from the most remote villages in India are battling fraud managers, identity theft and fake agencies that take advantage of the fact that they are first time mobile users and also struggle to understand English or even proper Hindi, leaving them with no proper representation.

Bane of imposter accounts

Shivani Kumari who comes from Ariyari village in Uttar Pradesh is one of the popular creators in the rural content ecosystem. She has 740,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 1.8 million followers on Instagram. Her Instagram follower size surpasses those of popular names like actor Kalki Koechlin, journalist Faye Dsouza, comedian Vir Das and creators far more popular than her including Dolly Singh, Mallika Dua, Ankur Warikoo and Srishti Dixit.

Creators are valued on the reach of their posts where the number of followers is only one part of their overall metrics. Other metrics include the number of impressions of their posts, spending ability of their followers and rate of engagement with their online content.

Kumari’s account hasn’t been verified by Instagram though. There are dozens of imposter accounts who claim to be the real Shivani Kumari. A few of these imposter accounts have also managed to snag over 100,000 followers and claim to do paid promotions for brands.

Kumari, who has around 1.5 million followers, has still not learnt how to generate income from her content. Many of her urban contemporaries, despite having just half the number of her followers and far less online engagement, are however thriving.

“Every other day, Shivani’s inbox is filled with emails from companies making unrealistic claims and promises. Having learnt our lessons, we now know how to differentiate the fake emails from the genuine ones," says Abhishek Kumar, Kumari’s cousin who has been managing her accounts for a couple of years now.

Kumar says that getting a verified Instagram account will help Kumari in getting brand promotions. Her earnings at present are mostly through YouTube that pays creators based on the performance of their videos.

The content consumption patterns of urban and rural India in many ways defines the journey of a content creator in the country. Rural creators as well as consumers still prefer YouTube over Instagram, says Kumar who runs Shivani Kumari’s page and also has a few of his own channels on YouTube.

YouTube announced that more than 20 million people in India streamed YouTube on their TV screens in May 2021—up 45% year-on-year. The Google-owned platform also highlighted that a growing number of YouTube viewers prefer watching content in languages like Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

Kumari, who blogs about life in the village, has three sisters and a mother who yearned for a son to support the family. With her earnings from YouTube, Kumari’s first big purchase was literally a roof over the family’s head.

“Fifty five thousand rupees for 10,000 bricks," she says in one of her videos on Youtube standing at a brick kiln, both nervous and excited about spending that kind of money to be able to build a proper house for her family which lived in a thatched house. A well-placed creator with Kumari’s reach could easily be making twice the amount of that money for a 30-second reel on Instagram.

A target of scams

Apart from the imposter accounts, Kumari is also a frequent recipient of fraudulent emails from organizations and individuals claiming to represent brands and wanting to sign her on in exchange for monetary benefits. Kumari, who can barely manage to relate her life story in Hindi because of her thick dialect, has to also navigate her way through a very English obsessed universe of content creation and monetization in India.

“We get emails from many agencies who offer to represent Shivani saying that someone like her can make lakhs of rupees a month only through brand deals. But we don’t know if we can trust them," says Kumar, adding that apart from the trust issues, many agencies are equipped to handle only English-speaking urban creators.

In 2020, Kumari ended up being a victim to a cheat who came to her village and promised to launch her in an upcoming TV series. An unwitting Kumari then paid 5,000 as the first instalment. Her cousin was suspicious since there was no paperwork involved and soon found through his network that the person was a fraud, who had by then blocked his number.

Content creators like Kumari are also susceptible to phishing and other types of online fraud.

Like creators, their followers who also come mainly from small towns and villages in India are also a target of sophisticated scammers. Recently, a page on Instagram reached out to rural creators with a campaign to advertise a cryptocurrency platform that claimed to double the investment amount in a couple of days.

“The advertiser targeted rural influencers asking them to narrate a written script and post it on their accounts for an hour and promised 25,000 in return," said Kumar. The advertiser turned out to be a scammer who got an initial set of people to invest money in the scheme and then deleted the page.

“Innocent people who followed these influencers and trusted them ended up losing their money," says Kumar.

“It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we are working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior," an Instagram spokesperson said in response to an email questionnaire. “Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, aren’t allowed and we’re developing technology to remove this activity from Instagram," the response said. The company however chose not to respond to the query about their criteria for verification of users on the platform.

Compensation discrepancies

Payments given to YouTubers or Instagram creators are based on various factors. This makes the payment structure in the industry highly fragmented.

“More often than not there is a huge discrepancy between what brands promise for a creator and what the creator actually receives," says Richa Kukreja, who works as a freelance recruiter for video platforms.

Kukreja, who has been recruiting creators since the early days of TikTok in 2017, says there are many so-called agencies in the market that represent creators but take away about 80% of the revenue. She said short video platforms are always on the lookout for new creators and pay these agencies and contractors to get them on their platforms. But there is a lot of discrepancy in the pay structure and often a very small percentage of the money is passed on to the creators themselves.

The teams of MX Takatak and Moj chose not to respond to our questions sent to them. Last week, Sharechat owned Moj announced a cash and stock deal worth $700 million, where it acquired MX Takatak from its parent MXPlayer to combine both platforms, which would collectively have a user base of 300 million users.

A spokesperson at Josh said that the company is aware of the scams happening with rural creators and has started awareness programmes and appointed city ambassadors to represent smaller communities. They, however, did not respond to a query on the payment discrepancy for creators.

Akshay Kakkar, a popular creator on Instagram says that many creators from smaller towns who joined the Indian short video platforms that came after the TikTok ban were happy to just be seen on any platform. Because they weren’t getting paid earlier, they were happy with any compensation coming their way through these platforms.

Very often, a small-town creator doesn’t even risk negotiating a deal in the fear of losing any further assignments.

Viraj Sheth, founder of influencer marketing agency Monk-e entertainment, says that a creator like Naveen Singh, aka Bihari Ladka, whose father earned just 20,000 per month, cannot even think of demanding 2.5 lakh for a 30-second reel.

“He would be happy even getting just 20,000 because he doesn’t understand that the actual market value of reaching 1.3 million followers would be 2 lakh," says Sheth.

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