Earlier this year, novelist Paulo Coelho tweeted a video from India. The video allegedly shows CCTV footage wherein a physically challenged person is trying to reset a tricycle’s chain on a busy street. He is clearly struggling with it yet no one offers help. However, two school children see his plight and help him. Not only this, they also helped the person hop on his tricycle.

Coelho wrote, “Two boys from India to brighten your complicated day.” This video gained over two million views. A quick glance at the replies reveals many people believe that the video shows true-life events. However, this video is staged and several others have pointed it out as well.

Coelho is not the first influential personality to have posted such a video. We found that there has been a drastic increase in the number of such posts after December 2020. The screenshot below is from the social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle. [If you have access to CrowdTangle, you can view the search result here.]

In the past two years, several verified Facebook accounts have posted staged drama clips. These videos offer a feel-good or a seemingly important public service message on wide-ranging topics such as child kidnapping, mobile usage or being wary of friends at parties. The table below shows the top 19 most viewed staged dramas posted by verified Facebook accounts in India.

Page NamePost CreatedPost ViewsLink
Priya2020-02-02 00:00:00 IST100888945https://www.facebook.com/ActressPriyaOfficial/videos/487901102537505/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-01-09 14:12:39 IST98667730https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/678461353317139/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-02-12 10:49:09 IST85338726https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/491917519044989/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2021-12-25 17:39:34 IST62445389https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/345197003650290/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-03-03 08:52:30 IST49325278https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/506037657587836/
Poonam Bajwa2022-01-12 15:57:41 IST48355938https://www.facebook.com/PoonamBajwaOfficial/videos/712033033108204/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-01-22 12:22:03 IST46211185https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/534900450861676/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2021-12-17 14:36:35 IST46091247https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/415207430305459/
Gutta Jwala2018-05-05 00:00:00 IST41143406https://www.facebook.com/Guttajwala1/videos/486453343034723/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-03-24 09:32:22 IST34992814https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/253278520328983/
Poonam Bajwa2022-01-11 15:45:14 IST34042451https://www.facebook.com/PoonamBajwaOfficial/videos/426382999194825/
Gutta Jwala2021-12-12 16:48:24 IST31815754https://www.facebook.com/Guttajwala1/videos/3086004591613935/
Hamsa Nandini2019-03-04 00:00:00 IST29953923https://www.facebook.com/ihamsanandini/videos/3061264460795105/
Priya2020-01-01 00:00:00 IST28062460https://www.facebook.com/ActressPriyaOfficial/videos/1032267320952769/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-02-19 10:52:11 IST27341846https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/1368786970230176/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2020-08-12 02:31:00 IST27321186https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/317185410190872/
Gutta Jwala2021-02-02 00:00:00 IST27089098https://www.facebook.com/Guttajwala1/videos/748701829435329/
Hamsa Nandini2020-09-23 15:09:00 IST26283467https://www.facebook.com/ihamsanandini/videos/1253748778379731/
Sanjjanaa Galrani2022-03-30 11:06:16 IST23878766https://www.facebook.com/sanjjanaagalrani/videos/1358049638030453/

What appears to be positive and uplifting content has become a part of a problematic trend. Since people believe these videos are true-life, many of the clips are being shared with distorted context mainly targeting the Indian Muslim community. In October 2021, we published our first fact-check report on this phenomenon. Hariom Rajawat, a supporter of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, shared such a staged video as genuine and claimed that a Muslim youth was planning to rape his Hindu friend by mixing an intoxicant in her drink. Since then, Alt News has published 10 reports that debunk misinformation around staged ‘CCTV’ videos — half of them targeting Muslims. [View spreadsheet]

Why do people fall for it?

Despite several giveaways that the video cannot be real, many people continue to fall for such videos. Why is that? Disingenuous disclaimer. In order to ensure that Facebook’s policies are not violated, the accounts add a “disclaimer” in the video’s description or in the final few frames in the video clip. Let’s inspect these disclaimers more closely.

Disingenuous video description

Nearly all such videos are posted with click-bait title, which includes emojis. Some examples are – ‘This is Amazing ❤️❤️🙏🙏,’ Don’t Judge So Quickly ❤️❤️🙏🏻🙏🏻, and ‘Be Careful 😨😨🙏🏻🙏🏻’. The screenshot below lists more such examples.

In order to view the disclaimer before watching the video, one has to click up on ‘See More button’ in the video description. The disclaimer is typically in English only. As a result, anyone who isn’t fluent in English will not realise that the video in question doesn’t show a true-life incident.

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The video below shows how a viewer must click on the ‘See more’ button in order to view the disclaimer.

Disingenuous video disclaimer

This disclaimer — “Thank you for watching! Please be aware that this page features scripted dramas and parodies as well. These short films are for entertainment & educational purposes only” — appears for merely a second and in a font so tiny that it can barely be read. The video below shows the last few seconds of a staged drama video. In case you missed the disclaimer, it’s not your fault. Watch the video again on full screen and focus right below the prayer hands.

The slideshow below shows a few comments posted under the staged drama videos with over 100 million views. While some people can spot that this video is not genuine, an overwhelming majority of people think that the videos show true-life incidents.

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Such videos are also being shared on job hunting portals like LinkedIn. Gurudutt Biswal, a leading PR professional who has been listed PR30 under 30 in 2021 and 2020, told Alt News, “The videos cater to the human need to sympathise with the ones who are needy. I feel these videos are being shared purely for clout even though they are fabricated. To me, it seems like LinkedIn users post these videos to increase online engagement. However, many are monetising by posting such videos on Facebook.”

The economy of “staged-drama” enthusiasts

Using CrowdTangle, we found which accounts post such videos. The data below focuses on verified accounts only.

  1. There is a network of verified Facebook accounts that post scripted videos with disclaimers. About 300 videos have over 400 crore views since 2018. This PDF has documented all such posts.
  2. Accounts that post such videos frequently include badminton ace Gutta Jwala [2.5 million followers], model Hamsa Nandini [over 3 million followers], actor Poonam Bajwa [13 million followers], singer Priya [8.5 million followers] and model Sanjjanaa Galrani [4 million followers].
  3. The chart below shows the number of staged video posts by verified Facebook accounts in India.
    Unlike other accounts, Jwala’s profile mentions the company that manages her account — LemonadePR.

On the company’s website, we noticed a Twitter link that directs to the profile of one Basanth Jain whose bio states he is the agent for Jwala Gutta and other celebrities. Alt News attempted to reach out to Jwala via Twitter to seek her rationale behind posting staged videos on her profile. We didn’t hear back from her. Over a telephonic call with a member of LemonadePR, we learned these videos are being monetised. The employee also clarified that the company does not make these videos, but outsources them. When we asked them to identify the company, they said, “We have a non-disclosure agreement.”

We also contacted a Facebook spokesperson to enquire if the social media giant can take action against accounts posting staged videos that are later picked up and shared with communal claims. The spokesperson replied, “On your email regarding scripted videos, the team did an internal investigation and (as anticipated and shared during our call last week that videos have a disclaimer) found them to be non-violating.”

To sum it up, the menace of staged drama videos on Facebook will continue. Next time you come across videos showing CCTV “expose”, don’t forget to check the description of the clip by clicking on the “read more” button.

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About the Author

Archit is a senior fact-checking journalist at Alt News. Previously, he has worked as a producer at WION and as a reporter at The Hindu. In addition to work experience in media, he has also worked as a fundraising and communication manager at S3IDF.