A message on social media claimed that some real estate developers had defaulted on loans taken from Piramal Enterprises and its subsidiary Piramal Capital & Housing Finance (PCHFL). Piramal is not alone.
A few weeks ago, Nestle was in a spot after a WhatsApp message alleged there were poisonous substances in the products of its pet care entity Purina Petcare India.
In September, the Infibeam Avenues stock lost 71% of its market value on a single day after a WhatsApp message circulated among traders raised concerns over the e-commerce company’s accounting practices. The message was attributed to Equirus Securities, which denied issuing any such information.
In July, Kerala-based Kalyan Jewellers claimed to have taken a hit of Rs 500 crore due to a spate of fake messages and videos on social media about the brand and its products.
Fake news on social media platforms, earlier restricted to political parties and politicians, is making inroads into the corporate world, often leading to significant monetary and reputational damage, and companies are battling a tough terrain, according to lawyers, marketers and digital and social media agency heads.
In the Piramal case, the message read: “PEL News in Mumbai, in the limelight: Traders saying that Rs 1,500-1,800 crore loan default by a builder called Nahar Developers…That is why stock is down 10%.” Piramal informed the stock exchanges on Sunday about the rumours on its real estate lending portfolio and refuted them, saying that the companies mentioned in the messages had never defaulted on any interest or repayment obligation.
Nestle approached Check4Spam, a non-profit entity that verifies posts on social media. A Purina Petcare India spokesperson said: “It has come to our notice that false information around our product is being circulated on select platforms. We are reassuring our consumers about the quality and safety of the product. There is a dedicated team which is monitoring the development and trying to identify if possible, the origin of the message.”
Check4Spam founder Shammas Oliyath said for verification, the entity gets a lot of posts which look like they are intended to malign companies and their products. People panic or get worried when they see news related to their favourite products, Oliyath said. “There are also posts which are particularly targeted at companies to malign them,” he added.
Fake news items busted by Check4Spam include those on Hamdard Laboratories not employing Hindus and non-Muslims, Red Bull having bull sperm, drinking Pepsi after consuming Polo or Mentos causing instant death, and Cadburys dairy milk having pork ingredients. A PepsiCo spokesperson said the company has been noticing a trend of deceptive and defamatory content circulated on social media, which is a cause of concern.
“Misleading content showing that Kurkure has plastic has adversely affected the brand’s reputation,” the spokesperson said. “When our brands are repeatedly targeted with content that is fake and malicious and threatens our long-term equity, we take the legal recourse.” “People are engaging content managers to monitor content and initiate appropriate civil or criminal action including defamation, take down notices, or getting an apology issued,” said Tushar Ajinkya, head of forensics and fraud investigations practice at DSK Legal.
“However there could be instances where a potential rival can create multiple accounts and can retweet and share messages very quickly. That can be very hard to control,” he added. Ajinkya said companies can also request entities like Facebook to take down articles if they can prove prima facie that they are defamatory but there could be instances where certain articles may prima facie border upon truth which can be twisted and that can’t be easily proven as being defamatory.
According to Aditya Gupta, cofounder of iGenero, besides advertising to allay concerns and misinformation, companies can do little to prevent these instances. “At least on Facebook and Twitter, companies can write to them and they can act by blocking this content from people’s feed. But on WhatsApp it is very tough. The sheer reach and volume of the content is so high on the platform,” Gupta said.
While some companies don’t take the need for response and reputation management as seriously in India, larger ones such as Hindustan Unilever have big command centres set up to tackle such situations, said Zafar Rais, CEO of Mindshift Interactive.
“Having a social media agency alone is not enough. Having proper monitoring tools in place that can capture data before it spirals into something bigger is important. We have built a base of digital evangelists and influencers for some of our brands to help tackle situations like these,” said Rais.