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Kerala: Amicus Curiae proposes 48-hour embargo on reviews by social media influencers

Amicus Curiae Shyam Padman in his 33-page report says social media influencers like Aswanth Kok, Unni Vlogs, Cinephile, and Chekuthan have amassed a huge number of followers and can make or break a film.

An Amicus Curiae appointed by the Kerala High Court has proposed certain guidelines for regulation of social media influencers engaged in film reviewing, including a 48-hour embargo between release of a movie and the review by them. A few news outlets have misinterpreted the Amicus Curiae report as a verdict of the Kerala High Court, however the court is yet to decide on the proposals. 

Shyam Padman in his report says it is necessary to differentiate the new age social media influencers from film critics like Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan who are part of Film Critics Guild, India’s first registered association of film critics and also actively engage with the audience in social media. Their reviews stand out from those of many current vloggers by the depth of analysis that goes beyond surface-level impressions, it said.

The report has also suggested measures to combat 'Review Bombing' through use of fake profiles and bots and fraudulent consumer reviews on ticket booking platforms and film databases apart from ‘paid negative reviews’. The Amicus Curiae has also proposed establishing a dedicated portal by the Cyber Cell of the police to receive complaints related to review bombing. Another suggestion is mandatory compliance with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) Framework by all review sites.

The framework ‘Online Consumer Reviews – Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication’ managed by BIS was published in 2021 and voluntary in nature. Under the framework, platforms will be required to set up review administrators to moderate reviews using automated tools or manually to filter out biases and restrict fraudulent reviews.

In his 33-page report, advocate Shyam Padman has recommended a 48-hour embargo against film reviews by social media influencers. “Vloggers should refrain from dissecting a movie in the name of film review within the first 48 hours of a movie's release. This cooling-off period allows viewers to form their own opinions without being unduly influenced by early, potentially biased reviews,” the report says. The report interchangeably uses the term vloggers to refer to social media influencers who make opinionated remarks on new releases. 

The Amicus Curiae also wants social media influencers to use a ‘respectful tone,’ provide ‘constructive criticism’, avoid spoilers, and also consider their impact on the industry. 

The origin of the case 

In October 2023, filmmaker Mubeen Rauf of Aromalinte Aadyathe Pranayam fame approached the Kerala High Court seeking a ban against ‘social media influencers’ reviewing his film for at least a week. He argued that ‘unchecked proliferation’ of online film critics who engage in negative criticism, poses a significant threat to the film industry. Subsequently, the High Court issued a notice to the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on a petition seeking to establish clear and transparent guidelines for online film critics and ‘vloggers.’

The Ernakulam police had filed a case against a few online film reviewers like Aswanth Kok, Arun Tharanga, NV Focus, Trend Sector 24x7, Travelling Soulmates, owner of Facebook account anoopanu6165, for allegedly targeting director Ubaini E’s  movie Rahel Makan Kora with ‘negative reviews’ interspersed with abusive words with the aim of extortion. 

The police had registered a case under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 385 (putting person in fear of injury in order to commit extortion) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) and the Kerala Police Act Section 120 (o) (causing nuisance violation of public order).

Among these film reviewers, Aswanth Kok wields a significant influence owing to his no-holds-barred style of criticism often laced with abusive words. He has over 209k followers on his YouTube channel. 

Read: The rise of YouTube reviewers is changing the dynamics of film criticism in Kerala

The Kerala High Court which viewed the issue seriously, appointed Padman as the Amicus Curiae in the case. According to the filmmakers, these online film reviewers threaten to give ‘negative reviews’ if they were not paid to promote the movie.   

The HC had  asked the State Police Chief on what actions could be taken in such instances. But the police chief did not mention any protocol on this tricky subject due to the implication it has on the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a).

 In his report, Padman said that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should draft guidelines for film reviews which would ensure “a more responsible and ethical social media landscape.” He said that these regulations would not only protect the integrity of the filmmaking process but also safeguard the interests of audiences and promote a culture of professionalism and accountability among influencers. 

Impact of social media influencers

Speaking about the impact of the new age film reviewers, the report says that reviewers like Aswanth Kok, Unni Vlogs Cinephile, Chekuthan, LifeofShazzam, etc have amassed a huge number of followers. “Their influence amongst the ordinary public is such that if they give positive reviews for low budget films with no particular star cast, then the chance for these movies to remain in the theatre and do business for the producer increases. On the other hand, if they give negative reviews for these kinds of films, there are high chances for these movies to be out of the theatre after the very first day itself. Irrespective of the scale and budget of the movies, these influencers can easily affect the decision of a common man to watch the movie in theatre or not, directly impacting the commercial interest of the movie.”

The report says that these reviewers often prioritise sensationalism over substantive critique, employ “derogatory language and dismissive attitudes” that may subconsciously sway audience perception and discourage potential viewers. 

“When vloggers use harsh language and derogatory remarks, they create a negative perception of the movie, dissuading viewers from investing their time and money in it. This can be especially damaging during the crucial opening weekend, when a film's financial success often hinges on strong initial attendance.”

Padman suggests that these contemporary social media influencers should learn from the ethical values demonstrated by critics like Chopra and Rangan when reviewing films. “By adopting a similar approach of conducting in-depth analysis, offering constructive feedback, and maintaining a respectful tone, influencers can contribute to a more enriching and respectful discourse surrounding cinema. Embracing these ethical values not only enhances the quality of their reviews but also promotes a culture of appreciation and understanding within the film community,” he says.

What the report says about review bombing

While acknowledging that the digital media revolution has democratised film reviewing, the report has addressed the phenomenon of  ‘review bombing’ which badly affects the performance of a film. 

Review bombing refers to a coordinated effort by a group of individuals, often motivated by a specific agenda or bias, to leave a large number of negative reviews or ratings for a particular film on platforms such as movie review websites or social media platforms such as IMDb, BookMyShow, Rotten Tomatoes, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. These negative reviews are often disproportionate to the actual quality of the film and are aimed at artificially lowering its overall rating or reputation. This phenomenon can have significant repercussions on a film's reputation, box office performance, and overall reception, highlighting the need for effective measures to identify and address such behaviour, the report says.

According to the report, the primary method used in review bombing is creation of fake profiles on review platforms. “These fake profiles are often set up with the sole purpose of leaving negative reviews or ratings for a specific film. These individuals or groups may use automated tools or manual methods to create multiple fake accounts, which they then use to bombard the film's page with negative feedback,” the report says. 

According to the report, the other factors contributing to review bombing include fraudulent consumer reviews and paid negative reviews. 

“Fraudsters employ various techniques to manipulate ratings and reviews on movie websites or platforms. One common tactic involves the use of bots or fake accounts to submit multiple positive or negative reviews, thereby distorting the overall rating. By artificially inflating or deflating the rating, these malicious actors seek to influence public perception and potentially impact the success or failure of a film.” 

The report recommended promptly registering FIRs during the ‘golden period’ (within 48 hours of a film’s release) against the perpetrators of review bombing. 

The Investigating officers must employ specialised techniques and tools to trace the origins of these fake accounts, including analysing IP addresses and metadata associated with the reviews, the report says. The report suggested that police should work in collaboration with intermediaries, such as online review platforms or social media companies to swiftly remove fake reviews and prevent further manipulation of review scores.

The report also suggested that film review sites like BookMyShow, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, etc should mandatorily comply with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to eliminate the practice of manipulation. “At present, compliance with this framework is voluntary. But if its compliance is extended to intermediaries like BookMyShow, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, etc., where most of the film reviews are published by consumers (movie goers), then it is possible to regulate manipulation of consumer reviews,” the report says.

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