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Netflix's new documentary The Tinder Swindler has been a hit with viewers recently, becoming the second and third most-watched show on the platform in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively at the time of writing. Meanwhile, it was ranked fourth on Netflix Malaysia. The documentary, which was released on 2 February, tells the story of three women who were conned by an Israeli man named Simon Leviev, whose real name is Shimon Hayut. Hayut claimed to be the scion of a wealthy tycoon and lavished them with extravagant dates before scamming them of large amounts of money.
Hayut's full name was the fifth most searched term in Malaysia on 3 February in Malaysia with 10k searches on Google Trends and was fourth in Singapore with 2k searches on that same day. According to statistics provided to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE by Digimind, the documentary witnessed a 1,205% increase in social media mentions from 2.4k on 2 February to 29.5k on 8 February. Most of the chatter came from the US (33%) and UK (25%), followed by South Africa (13%), and Kenya (9%).
Significant social chatter was largely centred around countries such as the US, the UK, and South Africa. Just within days after its release, several news publications such as The Washington Post and Daily Mail have picked up on news surrounding the documentary and garnered a vast amount of interactions.
Hayut was arrested in Greece in 2019 and extradited back to Israel. Once there, he was convicted of four fraud charges and made to pay his victims a total of more than US$43,000, NBC News reported. That said, he only served five out of his 15-month sentence and has lived as a free man since May 2020.
When contacted by The Tinder Swindler's producers for comment, Hayut sent them a voice message which was included at the end of the documentary that said: "I will proceed with the lawsuit against you for defamation and lies and, you know, that everything is based, basically on a lie. And that's it, this is how it's gonna be."
A day after the documentary's release, Hayut was banned from using dating apps under Tinder's parent company Match Group, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal said. They include Match.com, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid. Tinder's spokesperson told NBC News and WSJ that it had carried out extra internal investigations in the lead up to the release and confirmed that Hayut is not active on Tinder under any of his known aliases.
Meanwhile, Tinder's spokesperson told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that it has a zero-tolerance policy for this type of behaviour and is constantly investing in ways to keep members safe while they are using Tinder. This includes a robust suite of safety features and in-app safety education, fraud detection technology, and working directly with law enforcement when needed.
"We thank these women for coming forward to share their stories and shed light on the realities of romance fraud. Scams and frauds are the enemies of genuine connection, and exposing these offences makes our entire community stronger. We strongly encourage members to report any suspicious behaviour to us directly so we are able to identify, stop, and remove criminals before they hurt anyone else," the spokesperson said.
A win for Tinder?
The Tinder Swindler has no doubt placed Tinder under the spotlight. While the impact on the app's reputation remains to be seen, one of the victims featured in the documentary, Cecilie Fjellhøy, said in the show she is still using Tinder and that "Tinder has nothing to do with this". Fjellhøy, who was scammed over US$200,000 by Hayut, added that she was on Tinder immediately following the incident.
Truescope's statistics showed a 30% increase in chatter among netizens in Singapore after the premiere of The Tinder Swindler, with discussions coming from general threads in forums. Chatter in Malaysia rose from less than five a day to 200, with a rise of almost 3,900%. Meanwhile in Indonesia, chatter also peaked at almost 100 on 10 February, marking a 3,200% increase. Thailand saw the highest number of conversations, peaking at close to 1,000 mentions a day after the documentary's premiere. This was up 2,000% from the usual number, with discussions mainly coming from tweets and retweets of the documentary.
Industry players MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to said the documentary would not have much of an impact on Tinder's image - and Fjellhøy's final comment on still being on the platform absolves the brand completely.
While the narrative of the documentary and actions of the perpetrator are immoral and unethical, Peter De Krester, founder and CEO of GO Communications, said the Tinder brand itself has been further propelled across the globe by a promotional powerhouse, Netflix. "People are talking about the show on bar tops, mamak tables and equally enthusiastically online! One could say this situation falls quite fittingly into the old adage, 'Any publicity is good publicity!'" he said.
Similarly, Wesley Gunter, MD, Right Hook Communications is of the view that The Tinder Swindler would probably increase the apps followers. In his view, while Tinder's image was never overwhelmingly positive to begin with, it is still what drew its target audience to the app "like bees to honey".
There have been documentaries in the past with an agenda to "bring down big brands", Gunter explained. These include Supersize Me in 2004 about McDonald's and more recently The Social Dilemma. While these brands may lose a few users initially, Gunter said this will only make a dent in their overall revenue and instead, give them more awareness which can be used to their advantage. He added:
When brands reach that zenith in the industry it's difficult to make their loyal followers, some spanning more than one generation, leave them.
In addition to the gripping revelations within the documentary, The Tinder Swindler has also provided a realistic portrayal of dating apps and the online dating world. "It not only cautions users against the misuse of the platform’s intent, but also leverages the power of edutainment to help users better prepare themselves," Mazuin Zin, Edelman Malaysia's MD said, adding:
I’d say it brings out the ‘realism’ within the brand.
She too thinks that the content piece seems to be working for Tinder, judging by how well it has been received by audiences who are savvy and regulars on the platform. she said,
Next steps for Tinder
Love scams are becoming increasingly common these days. Such online scams have nearly tripled in the US in the past years and victims lost about US$304 million alone in 2020, according to the US Federal Trade Commission.
Meanwhile, Singapore witnessed 822 love scams in 2020, The Straits Times reported, a more than 13-fold increase from 2011 when there were only 62 cases. The amount has also ballooned to SG$33.1 million in 2020 from SG$12 million in 2015 and SG$2.3 million in 2011, ST said. The Singapore Police Force has been putting out alerts about new scams while the National Crime Prevention Council in Singapore also has a dedicated Scam Alert microsite to warn the public of various scams. Additionally, media outlets in Malaysia including New Straits Times and The Star also previously reported about victims losing up to millions due to love scams.
A day before the documentary's launch, the dating app released a blog post a day titled "Romance Scams: How to protect yourself online". While the post did not make mention of Hayut or The Tinder Swindler, it listed telltale signs of potential scammers also shared how individuals can protect themselves from such dating scams.
While Tinder has taken steps to quell any tarnished brand damage, GO Communications' De Krester said the debate rages on whether users on social platforms should naturally be more aware of such circumstances. "One is certainly not condoning this type of behaviour, but I would bet my last five bucks ‘The Tinder Swindler’ is not swindling alone nor would it be platform-agnostic for such occurrences to take place," he said.
In terms of brand reputation, De Krester said the focus would be on what Tinder does now or next that truly defines its brand standing and commitment to users.
Similarly, Be Strategic's chief strategist, Ashvin Anamalai said when faced with such a situation, it would be best for Tinder to lead with empathy. While the majority of users enjoy the benefits of the platform, a good plan would be to empower existing and future users with awareness of cybercriminals and their modus operandi.
"Our advice would be to use TheTinder Swindler as a learning experience. It is important to emphasise the value of listening to and analysing feedback while ensuring the safety of not only Tinder's users but all Internet users," he added.
Another learning lesson here would be for Tinder to beef up its technological prowess. Aside from the advisory that Tinder has released concerning love scams, Archetype Singapore's head of digital, Julian Chow, said the platform could further boost user confidence moving forward by implementing additional safety measures, such as AI technology, to flag potentially suspicious accounts or behaviours.
On a similar note, Rachael De Foe, MD of RDF Strategies, who said there is an opportunity for Tinder to build reputation resiliency and introduce sufficient preventative measures by going direct to users to acknowledge uncomfortable questions in the short term. However, in the long run, it could require a much larger exercise involving strategic counsel from communications experts so decisions made around technology or reporting improvements can factor in levers to activate a crisis response.
"Ultimately, the purpose of a documentary is to educate and empower individuals with information. Taking on that same responsibility as a brand can help to build trust and the relationship you'd expect apps to have with its users," she added.
Photo courtesy: Netflix
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