What are Education Empires selling?

It is the age of internet and technology. Ambitious and eager parents are becoming more and

more adept in honing and fostering their child’s talents and abilities by employing all the

resources that are at their disposal, and rightly so. Over the years, the correlation between the

age of a child and their achievements has steadily worn thin. The lower the age, the greater is

the allure of an achievement, which more often than not is linked with money and fame.

Every once in a while, we have heard of an ingenious child with unbelievable

accomplishments to his name, despite their young age. Undoubtedly, every parent wants their

child to be first in line. Frequently, children of tender ages are dragged and pushed into this

vicious and ugly cycle by their parents, unbeknownst to their plight. But the question is, how

far are we willing to tread to make this a reality? And how easy has it become to sell these

dreams wrapped in a bright future?

WhiteHat Jr., an ed-tech startup acquired by BYJU’s for a whopping $300 Million, found

itself in the vortex of a major controversy over its alleged misleading advertisements and bald

claims. WHJ’s digital literacy program allegedly introduces and prepares children from 6-18

years for the new coding world. WHJ claims that these courses, its arms students with

impressive coding skills, enabling them to generate creative outcomes like animations and

create websites, games, and apps. Considering their skilled student army having extraordinary

accomplishments, which they incessantly advertise and showcase, a tender age can hardly be

a limitation for any child. However, if you find it implausible and suspicious, you are not

alone. WHJ’s mind-boggling brainchild, a genius called 'Wolf Gupta' who starred in their

leading advertisements, sometimes as a 13-year-old who secured a 20-crore job at Google

after learning AI and at another instance, as a 9-year-old who earns 150 crores from Google

video, while other children who were not pursuing WHJ’s coding courses, were clueless

about what to do after school or were mindlessly browsing through YouTube Videos. The

consistency in WHJ’s advertisements and the existence of “Wolf Gupta” blazed up the

controversy.

Now the question is, could every viewer of this Ad have possibly thought that their child

could not become “Wolf Gupta” because he simply does not exist? Can we be certain say that

every consumer is immune to this marketing gimmick?

In reality, WHJ’s advertisements involved imaginary characters, which fact is not always

discernible by those who unsuspectingly rely on the correctness of an advertisement. We

cannot eliminate the possibility of parents falling prey to these ploys under a guileless desire

of building a lucrative and stable future for their child, which is portrayed by these fictional

and deceptive characters. These misleading marketing tactics gradually became a subject of

public scrutiny and eventually, this controversy blew up on social media. The advertisements

were taken down only after the Advertising Standards Council of India (“ASCI”) intervened.

In October last year, ASCI ordered the ed-tech giant to take down five of its advertisements

which violated its advertisement code.

One cannot help but entertain a legitimate doubt that had it not been so directed by the

Advertisement Council, these advertisements would have possibly found a place on the mega

start-up’s website and ad campaigns even today, deceiving scores of parents and nudging

children’s futures into peril. As to how they found these advertisements funny and creative

but not misleading is a mystery in itself. The extent of falsity with which these ads were

tainted is simply appalling. WHJ’s major critics Pradeep Poonia, former CISCO Engineer and

UPSC Aspirant, and Aniruddha Malpani were slapped with a $2.5 million and $1.9 million

defamation suit respectively, for openly critiquing WHJ for touting false and misleading

claims. Pradeep Poonia who operated a Twitter account “@WhiteHatSr”, which in itself

echoes Poonia’s sentiment of WhiteHat Jr. being a Ponzi scheme, allegedly exposed the

coding startup in a series of tweets, videos, and posts. The internal correspondences between

the ed-tech giant and its employees which completely exposed WHJ, were allegedly hacked

and posted on the web. Pending the litigation, Malapani’s Twitter account was suspended and

select tweets were directed to be deleted by the Delhi High Court vide an ad-interim order.

The mysterious disappearance of unfavourable feedback did not escape the public eye. A

frequently filtered review segment became a conspicuous occurrence in no time. Copyright

protection was allegedly the greatest shield used by this mega startup. 12-year-old Jihan

Haria’s YouTube video criticizing WHJ was taken down owing to a Copyright Strike on the

day the video was uploaded. Many of Poonia’s social media accounts were suspended due to

multiple copyright violations and his critical reviews kept disappearing. Suspended YouTube

channels, Reddit account, Quora account, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn account, and repeatedly

deleted posts did nothing to deter that man on a mission. Poonia kept resurfacing across

Social Media Platforms with different channels and different accounts.

The asinine attempt of silencing the critics only added fuel to the fire. Several reviewers

maintained that their critical feedback kept strangely disappearing across social media

platforms. WHJ was then accused of critical content moderation, corporate censorship, and

the ingenious use of the Content ID System to create a carefully curated review section that is

deceptively positive. It has sparked massive debates revolving around the transparency in

content moderation and the social media algorithm on copyright violation.

It appears that educational empires are pouring in more money on ‘inviting and appealing’

marketing than a rich course infrastructure and competent workforce. In the web era, there is

a perpetual flow of free resources and endless opportunities are just one click away. These

resources must be put to good use so that children have a real opportunity of accessing and

seasoning their areas of interest, without their parents having to shell out wads of cash and

purchase disappointment. These daring advertisements have long crossed the line of social

responsibility. Several companies in the market have now started targeting students and

piquing the insecurities of parents. Selling their services for a heavy cheque by employing

smart marketing gimmicks is now an ever-growing trend. If such unethical practices are

overlooked, it would sadly become a norm. Exercising caution and prioritizing your child’s

wellbeing is vital. Today, it is imperative that we stand our ground and dismantle the

unforgiving system of purchasing a child’s future at the cost of their childhood.

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