The recent controversy that has erupted between WhiteHat Jr, founder Karan Bajaj, Pradeep Poonia, and Aniruddha Malpani, both of whom have been strong critics of the online education start-up’s marketing campaigns among other things, seems to be the testimony of the same.
Incidentally, WhiteHat Jr was acquired by Byju (founded by Byju Raveendran) in 2020, and, coincidentally, both the companies have faced significant criticism over their marketing campaigns, business operations, and internal work culture.
However, the point to be noted here is that it is not new for the general public to come across marketing campaigns and advertisements that are over the top, unrealistic, and far fetched.
Covid -19 pandemic has resulted in a release of a string of such advertisements, ranging from paints to plywood, cleaning agents, and even mouthwash that have laid claim to guarding and fighting off the coronavirus with up to an almost 99.9% effectiveness.
Karan Bajaj donning the hat, WhiteHat Jr
Karan Bajaj, an Indian technology entrepreneur and an author has three novels to his credit and is the founder of WhiteHat Jr.
In 2018, he founded the now famous WhiteHat Jr, as an online educational company with an emphasis on training coding skills among children, which was later acquired by Byju’s for $300 million, one of India’s largest online education companies.
The company’s major share of the business comes from kids living in the US. According to the start-up’s statement, since the lockdown, demand for its one – to – one class has surged by nearly 90% this year.
Therefore, any criticism at this point would not be conducive as it would have a direct impact on its reputation and business.
However, being an educative online platform, the resistance to negative feedback or even criticism of its operations is, in fact, setting an example to kids and their parents that feedback, unless it is positive, should not be taken and given due consideration.
It is illustrating to them that a healthy debate, handling criticism positively, and giving it due diligence should be avoided at all costs and if possible, go a step further, turn the same around and if you have the resources – file a defamation case!
Pradeep Poonia and Aniruddha Malpani face the mirror with a defamation lawsuit.
To Pradeep Poonia and Aniruddha Malpani’s horror, a lawsuit has been filed against them – Poonia has been accused of defaming and spreading misleading information about the start-up, infringing trademarks and copyright of properties owned by the company, and also obtaining the company’s private communications app.
It further accuses Poonia of publicly sharing phone numbers of the company’s employees and accuses him of drawing parallels with ‘child sexual abuse’ to start up’s marketing gimmicks.
The lawsuit also talks about Poonia indulging in fraud tactics like signing up for trial classes, recording videos without the knowledge and the consent of the teacher, and putting them up on a public platform.
He has also been accused of tutoring a minor student to ask several questions on technology that had very little to do with coding. Even his Twitter posts, which showed WhitHat Jr employees talking insultingly and disparagingly against women who had applied for teaching positions, were objected to.
Poonia, on his part, has been quite vocal about White Hat Jr’s online marketing campaigns, drawing out unethical advertising tactics that the company uses to sell its products to both parents and young children.
One such advertisement talks about how there is a fight that has erupted between future investors who would like to invest in a kid’s brilliant idea – and the parents watch even as a neighbor questions them as to the reason for the commotion. The parents gleefully explain that the fight is over their kid and his brilliance; meanwhile, the kid stands with absolute contempt and arrogance on his face.
While on paper, this might seem like a creative thought process that indicates the kid’s brilliance and how he has been helped and molded by the said advertiser, but in reality, it is in poor taste.
It indicates to children who are easily mouldable that it is ok to be arrogant, be an instigator in a fight, overconfident, unmoved, and not concerned and actually waiting for the winner to emerge and who would ultimately get his golden hands.
Talk about setting unrealistic expectations, over the top confidence, and a ‘dream reality’ both for the kids and their parents.
Interestingly, the Advertisement Council of India had directed the company to take down one of such advertisements. On several occasions the advertisement policy and tv commercials of white hat jr has been criticized by Indian society for promoting un-necessary competition & over ambition among kids and their parents.
The lawsuit against Poonia is for $2.7 million in damages.
Aniruddha Malpani – on the other hand, has also been accused, and the second lawsuit was filed by WhitHat Jr, seeking damages of about $ 1.9 million.
The start-up alleges that Malpani has been critical and posting on social media platforms against the company because he is an investor in rival companies Bibox Labs, Multibhashi, and ConceptOwl, and these false and defamatory tweets have caused severe damage to WhiteHat Jr’s reputation and business.
Interestingly, Malpani, an angel investor, has also had his account suspended from Linkedin, the grounds of which were his very vocal criticism of Byju’s work culture, user experience, and it’s business model.
In an earlier instance, too, Linkedin had suspended his account for several days, citing – ‘his posts on coronavirus were not per the WHO guidelines.’
He also questioned the misleading sales tactics by Byju and, in one instance, had posted a video that showed a Byju manager using foul language on one of the staff members for not meeting the sales target.
Start-up’s and the ‘fear’ of criticism and the curious case of ‘taking down posts’ by social media platforms.
In recent times there seems to be an uncertain and heavy cloud that settles on start-ups, businesses, individuals – if they see posts that criticize their actions, business operations, or any other form of criticism that is not welcome.
In this digital age, freedom of expression and criticism is sharply met with the deletion of posts and content by the so-called protectors of speech and expression – the online social media platforms – who are the platform for regular people to raise their voice and write about what they feel whether that involves criticism or praise, the question is how do these social media platforms decide what is to be posted and what needs to be removed?