At a time when likes and shares influence political backgrounds as much as on-ground campaigns, the past fortnight bore witness to an unprecedented event. It was a collaboration, or perhaps a coalescence, of two realms that have stirred adoration and vitriol in equal measure – politics and influencer marketing.
It all began when YouTuber Ranveer Allahbadia, better known by his internet moniker BeerBiceps, began interviewing BJP ministers on his YouTube channel. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, S Jaishankar, Smriti Irani and Piyush Goyal found themselves under Allahbadia’s internet spotlight – he has 5.61 million subscribers on YouTube, 2.5 million on Instagram, and 528,700 on Twitter.
The internet teemed with reactions to this improbable fraternisation. Crucially, Apar Gupta, the founding director of Internet Freedom Foundation, pointed out that Allahbadia’s interviews were “co-presented by MyGov”, a government agency.
Have recently seen a Podcaster/Youtuber interview several Cabinet Ministers in the Union Government. This piqued my interest and I found that in the description, the phrase, "Co-presented to you by â @MyGovIndia".— Apar Gupta (@apar1984) June 26, 2023
As I regularly check government websites (one of my many weirdâ¦
As , YouTuber Raj Shamani also uploaded interviews with BJP politicians that were “co-presented by MyGov”.
Gupta pointed to a titled “Request for Empanelment (RFE) for Selection of Influencer Marketing Agencies for Empanelment with MyGov”.
So, are the BeerBiceps interviews a result of this tender? Are they part of a wider government marketing strategy?
No to the first. And maybe to the second.
We spoke to Allahbadia and his partner Viraj Sheth about it. Sheth is the CEO of Monk Entertainment, a digital media organisation founded by Sheth and Allahbadia in 2018.
They said a representative from MyGov had contacted them in May, suggesting “having some key cabinet ministers on our podcast”. After due consideration, they agreed. The phrasing “co-presented by MyGov” was used because the idea for the entire programme came from MyGov.
Sheth and Allahbadia said they did not bid for the March 7 tender, and they received no payments from the government for the series.
And Sheth said their platform is in the process of inviting non-BJP politicians too.
Here’s what we found.
No money, ‘nothing shady’
First, we called Allahbadia. While he directed us to speak to Sheth, he categorically said “no payments were received from the government” and the collaboration was “logistical”.
“You will have to ask Viraj this. I am not part of the daily operations of the agency. I have taken a step back for the last three years from operations,” he said. “I just help in strategy and Viraj is the CEO.”
When pressed for further details on the MyGov collaboration, Allahbadia called it a “partnership arrangement” and said the government had “contacted my unit, BeerBiceps”.
“I suspect the cabinet ministers were more agreeable due to the involvement of MyGov, considering each ministry operates independently. The whole process was quite relaxed. They were primarily responsible for organising it,” he said. “The government has several divisions and this was one of them involved in coordinating such governmental activities. That’s my understanding. Their interference was minimal, extending only to arranging the interviews. They reached out and identified who they wanted on the show – that was it.”
He added helpfully, “There’s nothing shady, if that’s what people are thinking.”
Next, we telephoned Sheth.
Sheth said the collaboration was more an “opportunity” than a “business transaction”. He said MyGov got in touch in May and “suggested having some key cabinet ministers on our podcast”.
“Until then, we had avoided political content, feeling perhaps we weren't quite prepared for it,” he said. “However, this presented a good opportunity. Figures such as Dr S Jaishankar and Smriti Irani have significant standing both nationally and globally. From a purely opportunistic standpoint, we decided this was a chance worth taking.”
The interviews took place in Delhi while Sheth and Allahbadia are based in Mumbai. Sheth said the government “paid for their travel, lodging and board” but all content and production aspects were handled by Monk Entertainment.
Sheth said the government had asked to review the final cut of the interview.
“We had previously discussed with them that we’d show the final video before uploading. But this is a courtesy we extend to all our guests, be it actors or anyone else who appears on the show,” he said. “We just prefer for them to have a look at it. Whether or not we accept their editing suggestions ultimately depends on us.”
He added that Irani had “explicitly trusted us with the content, saying she didn’t need to see the footage”.
Sheth admitted that they’d made a mistake with the phrasing of “co-presented”, and this was why it was later changed to “collaboration”, to emphasise the unpaid nature of the show. This change was made yesterday, June 26.
But their other videos don’t mention co-presenters or collaborators.
Sheth said, “It was just an honest mistake from our side. Perhaps we should have clarified from the beginning that no money was involved in this project whatsoever. With brands, we always disclose paid partnerships and use the appropriate hashtags. Since this project was not paid for, we didn’t feel the need to disclose this in the same way. However, in light of recent social media reactions, we now understand that we should have been even more explicit about this being a non-paid collaboration."
Newslaundry then asked whether BeerBiceps or Monk Entertainment had bid for the March 7 tender.
“We never submitted a bid for tenders. We’re not affiliated with or shareholders in any organisation that has applied for a government tender,” Sheth said. “It’s just the government inviting influencer marketing agencies to apply for a tender. A few agencies seem to have done so, leading people to believe we’ve secured the tender and that our series is part of the project. However, all these are assumptions.”
Sheth said he hadn’t even heard of the tender until he saw tweets about it.
“I understand the concerns,” he said. “If I were an outsider and came across the recent tender and the term ‘co-presented’, I too would question if taxpayer money is being used. However, I wish journalists would take the time to verify the facts with us before jumping to conclusions.”
He added, somewhat amused, “It’s funny to think that the government would pay for something like this. From our experience, they generally prefer to work for free, without monetary obligations whenever possible.”
It should be noted that on June 23, Sheth was part of an had with “over 50 top-performing YouTubers on various issues like popularising handicrafts, benefits of millets and consumer awareness”.
Not just BJP politicians in future
The pushback on social media has included that BeerBiceps is, through this series, improving the images of BJP ministers alone.
But Sheth told Newslaundry their platform will soon invite representatives from other political parties too.
“We’ve produced four podcasts featuring members from the same political party and it seems people are quick to label us as right-wing propagandists,” he said. “However, we do not oppose other political parties. In fact, we’ve already begun reaching out to representatives from different political factions to invite them to participate in our show.”
Allahbadia told Newslaundry he’s a “centrist” and that he’s previously interviewed not just Modi ministers but also “political commentators who offer perspectives from all sides: right, left and neutral”.
“I’m eager to discuss with opposition figures like Shashi Tharoor, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal to further shape my understanding and stance on politics,” he said. “I consider myself a centrist and believe the current government has significant room for improvement. From a geopolitical standpoint, however, I think this government has performed well – a subject I am more familiar with compared to national politics. I am currently deepening my knowledge of national politics.”
He also said he “will be inviting guests from the left after this”.
“This won’t alter my line of questioning when I speak with opposition parties,” he added. “I’ll remain true to myself and I may even ask them challenging questions. My role is to provide information to the audience and allow them to form their own opinions”.
Update at 9 pm, June 27: This story originally said Allahbadia ‘made it clear to the prime minister’s office’ that he would invite guests from the left. After the story was published, Sheth said this was a slip of the tongue and that his team is not in touch with the PMO. The quote has been changed.
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