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As New-Age influencers go he is the king, fusing spirituality — its vaguely undefined version — with a drop-a-minute life lesson that tickles the fancy of not just a hashtag-driven Instagram generation but also a Western audience that laps up the exotica of a ‘guru.’ In his overreach, however, Jay Shetty forgot his own truth-seeking mantra, be true to yourself.

A recent ‘Guardian’ report that accuses ‘life coach’ Jay Shetty of plagiarism has left many unsurprised. Some of the allegations are not new, yet despite his earlier dubious credentials, he inhabits a rarefied celebrity circle, feted, and encouraged.

Shetty has done everything from officiating Jennifer Lopez- Ben Affleck’s wedding to attending a White House dinner for the Indian PM. He is also the best-selling author of books that give life lessons on finding love while allegedly tweaking his truth.

Who keeps a check on influencers and what they peddle? What is the authenticity of books where the source itself is questionable?

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Hit-and-miss talent

Some allegations against Shetty are serious and make him more than just a grifter. A British Indian, his claims include visiting a temple for three years to become a monk — he got an epiphany when chasing corporate dreams.

His spiritual revelation reportedly lasted only weeks — he spent time making YouTube videos instead — and he is careful to not reference any past links. There are also gaps in his educational qualification as in the journey where in a classic influencer trait, the spiritual meets materialism.

Modern-day gurus zipping in Mercedes jeeps or eating gourmet non-vegetarian cuisines on offer, all have a calling, they tell the unsuspecting. Feeding the celebrity obsession with self-styled gurus though dates to the Beatles’ obsession with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or even the controversial yogi Swami Dhirendra in former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s camp.

Shetty has given it a millennial twist. In the deep social media ocean, where life advice is floating like filthy plastic at sea, people wake up in the morning and decide their day’s role-playing. Wellness, life coaching, and shampoo advice, it is all gobbled up by vulnerable people who live fast-paced lives and want someone else to make their decisions. As the report says, without his ‘monk’ past Shetty would have battled for influencer relevance online where talent is hit-and-miss.

'Easily influenced'

Shetty is a mogul who runs an empire, some of his business interests include a life coaching institution that charges exorbitantly from students while reportedly falsifying accreditation. Universities mentioned for student placements on his company’s website say they have no link.

That he runs an educational institution based on a degree the report alleges he does not possess, should be reason enough for fraud investigations. Incidentally, Shetty left his monk business soon enough and yet used its remains to become a brand, laughing all the way to the bank.

After plagiarism rumours in the past, he deleted hundreds of posts, but influencer and PR machinery are two sides of the same coin. Soon Shetty was on the couch with Ellen DeGeneres sharing his ‘rags- to riches’ story. In his (likely) words, when fame is enlightenment, you can be anything you choose to be.

Shetty forgot one rule — or perhaps he remembers — to keep it simple and despite the temptations on social media, not to be ‘inspired.’ The 36-year-old is reportedly an old hand in reposting content without permission or attribution, and ironically as an influencer is easily ‘influenced.’

When it comes to the business of influencers, there is no level playing field, and calling them out legally is a grey area. From peddling fake content to stealing posts, there is no accountability or right of way on social media. Recently, a storytelling handle Humans of Mumbai sued another handle claiming plagiarism. Ironically, HOM themselves had copied their name from the global platform, Humans of New York.

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Big bucks are involved

Without any regulations or transparency, the influencer industry is a shark-eat-shark world where the idea of high returns from low investment has gone beyond a millennial patent.

Those who get caught are only a fraction of the noise like TikTok influencer and exam tutor Brooke Lim who was forced to apologise for plagiarism. In an AI-driven world, lifting content from Chat GPT or its ilk is not even considered cheating.

The media is going through its fact-checking moment, but content on social media is the Wild West. There is an urgency to regulate credibility loopholes to curb misinformation. As it stands, there is an almost arrogant sense of entitlement to steal content from those whose quality does not translate into a quantity of followers. Shetty remains quiet and soon his PR machinery will do its job again, but in an offline world, the report’s allegations would be investigated for fraud.

The gap between accusation, authenticity, and accountability in most cases remains just that and ethics itself has many interpretations. Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, this refrain is made for social media where offenders are freeloaders. Will anyone bell the cat? As Jay Shetty has shown, the cult of the influencer is cut-throat, especially when big bucks are involved.