Meet Wolf Gupta - a 13-year old who 'learnt AI' to earn an Rs. 20 crore salary at Google. Hold on, he is actually a 9-year old who 'learnt computers' to earn an Rs. 1.2 crore from Google. Or wait, he's only 6-years old and he is already earning Rs. 150 crores a year by learning to code.
Alas, Wolf Gupta is not real, and the outlandish claims about his salary are part of a marketing gimmick ployed by ed-tech startup Whitehat Jr to lure parents to enroll their kids, lest they are left behind in the competitive rat race in India's education system.
These ads, however, did not go unnoticed and irked the likes of software engineer Pradeep Poonia - a self-proclaimed whistle-blower - who took it upon himself to expose the company and made a series of videos and Twitter threads discussing the questionable tactics used by Whitehat Jr to get customers.
Whitehat Jr did not take Poonia's actions lightly and filed a Rs. 20 crore defamation lawsuit, eventually getting an interim gag order on Poonia, forcing him to take down some of the posts and tweets. But for both Poonia and Whitehat Jr, the fight is far from over.
Whitehat Jr was founded by Indian-born American entrepreneur and author Karan Bajaj in 2018. Bajaj had formerly served as the CEO of Discovery Networks before founding the company. It slowly became popular this year through its aggressive ads offering coding classes to children as young as 6-years of age, where it claims to get them the best tech jobs at a baffling young age. The company also made headlines when it was acquired by Facebook-owned edtech giant Byju's in August for a whopping $300 million.
The Defamation Lawsuit
It was back in September that Poonia noticed the Whitehat Jr ads mentioning the fictional Wolf Gupta, and thus began his tirade against the company.
The company's aggressive marketing tactics began long before its acquisition by Byju's, and it cashed in on the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns. The company told parents through its ads that their children could become the next Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates or Elon Musk by taking their courses, and used the fictional characters of Wolf Gupta and Ryan Venkat to make ridiculous claims about their supposed salaries.
"How can you tell a 9-year old about getting a Rs. 150 crore salary from Google? It makes no sense," Poonia told BOOM over a conversation. Throughout the months of September and October, Poonia got into a cat-and-mouse game with Whitehat Jr on social media, wherein the former would put out videos to out the company, and the latter would pursue to take them down.
Poonia started getting traction last month when many parents and their children - peeved by ads - gave him support and reached out to him on social media. His YouTube channel - Whitehat Sr - was gaining more and more subscribers and views by the day.
But it was Whitehat Jr's all out attempt to silence criticism that drew an ever increasing attention to their tactics. "Thanks to them I had to create three different YouTube channels, as they kept taking them down," Poonia added.
And then came the Rs. 20 crore defamation lawsuit by the company and its CEO Karan Bajaj.
"I was shocked at first, and quite intimidated," said Poonia. "The first lawyer I spoke to told me that this was a simple harassment tactic by big companies, and that if I back out and apologise I would not face any consequence. But it didn't make any sense, I have proof of all the claims and allegations, why should I back out? Then I put out a Twitter thread which drew a lot of attention and I finally got some good legal counsel. However this was a very daunting time for me," he added.
The lawsuit filed by the company was also the first instance when it finally admitted that Wolf Gupta was an fictional character. It read as follows:
That on or about early September 2020, the Defendant (Poonia) started putting up posts on various social media platforms regarding the Plaintiffs (Bajaj and WhiteHat Jr). Although the Defendant's initial posts about Plaintiff No. 2 started in relation to the Plaintiff No. 2's advertisements concerning an imaginary child who the Plaintiffs christened "Wolf Gupta", the Defendant's posts quickly turned sinister subsequent to the withdrawal of the advertisements, with the Defendant claiming that Plaintiff No. 1 had "murdered" Wolf Gupta.
The company also accused Poonia of falsely claiming that the former had murdered Wolf Gupta, referring to a tweet made by Poonia where he states the same.
"This was a joke, how do you kill someone who does not exist? They cannot even take a joke," Poonia explained. By this time, Whitehat Jr had removed all of its ads mentioning Wolf Gupta from Facebook and Instagram.
Poonia was then directed by the court to take down a number of tweets that contained posts accusing the company of following a 'ponzi scheme' for business model, and screenshots of a Slack conversation between Bajaj and his colleagues at the company.
Poonia was also directed to change the name of his YouTube channel Whitehat Sr., to avoid copyright infringement. However, it should be noted that the company does not have a copyright over 'whitehat' which is a popular slang in the coding world suggesting an ethical computer hacker.
Whitehat Jr also filed a Rs. 14 crore defamation lawsuit against angel investor Aniruddha Malpani for "derogatory imputations" about the company in a series of tweets where Malpani questions Whitehat Jr's marketing strategy. This comes at a time when Malpani is already engaged in a legal battle against LinkedIn, after he was banned for allegedly criticising Whitehat Jr's parent company Byju's.
BOOM has reached out to Whitehat Jr multiple times over the past two days to request comment on this matter, but have received none till date. The story will be updated if and when they respond.
The company did not stop at Poonia and Malpani either. BOOM spoke to 12-year-old Jehan Haria, who had posted a spoof video last month to mock the company and its unrealistic claims in the advertisements. Soon, Haria found his video being taken down by YouTube after a push from WhiteHat Jr.
"The video contained no insults or expletives and was a simple spoof video. Finally, after much deliberation, YouTube reached out to us saying the complaint against the video did not comply with YouTube's regulations, and they reinstated it," said Mehul Haria, Jehan's father.
Milking The Rat Race
Following the defamation lawsuit, the matter finally exploded and drew sharp criticism from all corners. Communications consultant and blogger Karthik termed such advertising as deceptive, as opposed to misleading. In his blog Beast Of Traal, he wrote that the Whitehat Jr. ads stood out, as the products they were selling (jobs at Google) were not owned by them.
"The specific problem in WhiteHat Jr's advertising is that they mix the unreal with the real. So, while 'Wolf Gupta' is fictitious (which was not declared by the company till they mentioned it in the legal notice), 'Google' is not. That juxtaposition makes the viewers/audiences assume that the story is possibly real," Karthik wrote in his blog.
On Monday, during the proceedings of the defamation lawsuit, the Delhi High Court also took cognisance of the fact that such advertisements can have consequences on a child's psychology.
This is particularly alarming for India, where students face fierce competition to get seats at universities and colleges with highly detrimental impact on mental health. One of the more disquieting figures on this aspect would be the number of suicides by students over the past decade, which has been rising at a steady rate.
However, not all parents who had their children enrolled at Whitehat bought into their outlandish marketing gimmicks. For Parikshat Wadhwa, it was never about getting his 10-year-old a job at Google. "I wanted my son to get friendly and comfortable with the logical aspect of coding. My son has taken around 48 classes and I think it is time to end the course as I believe there is not much more they can teach," he told BOOM.
Similar sentiments were resonated by Divya Rajput, who's 10-year-old daughter had recently made an app called Recycler after months of training by Whitehat Jr. "I believe this is a hobby my daughter has picked up and is enjoying for now. If she ever gets bored we'll cancel the classes. So this was never about getting a Google job and an incredible salary at this age, but more of a hobby and self-discovery," she told BOOM.
While Whitehat Jr. may have attempted to silence its critics up until this point, Poonia is far from giving up and intends to fight this till the end. In a much more confident tone he told BOOM, "We're going to win this case - that is 100% sure."
Updated On: 2021-09-02T14:53:02+05:30