If you’ve been following me for even a short amount of time, one thing has probably become pretty clear:
I LOVE social media.
I love that social media allows people from every corner of the world to meet, collaborate, share ideas, be creative, source recommendations, and best of all, ANYONE can use it. I love that it’s full of uncharted territory and no one is truly an expert in the field yet. We’re all learning and evolving as platforms change.
I find it fascinating and I pay a LOT of attention to what people are doing and how they are doing it.
While the average user of social media maintains their accounts to keep up with their friends and family and will never share a post tagged with #ad, #spon, #partner, we all know that there is money to be made online and LOTS of it. This has led an overwhelming number of influencers, bloggers, and wannabe-influencers and bloggers to amass a following built on lies. This has been going on for quite a while now and for the longest time I thought this was common knowledge. It was only quite recently that I started to realize that most people don’t actually know that this is happening; even some PR pros who send these people colossal amounts of free products and paycheques to match! How can this be? Why aren’t more people talking about this? That’s why I’m bringing you My Beginner’s Guide to Instagram Fakery as a part of my Wtfstagram? series. Previous post: A Strongly Worded Letter to Frauds on Instagram
This is not meant in any way to be a how-to guide on how to build a fake following of your own (if you decide to go this route after reading this, well, that’s your prerogative), it’s meant to be a crash-course in what’s happening online so you can be a discerning viewer and consumer. This is meant to make you realize that someone’s follower count shouldn’t lend so much weight to what they have to say. Blindly trusting someone because of the number of followers they have is how cults get started! Or something like that…
So, why are people buying followers and likes on Instagram?
There are countless reasons and I’m not educated enough to delve into the psyche behind all of this, but it comes down to a few main reasons:
- To become more “valuable” to brands who may pay them to post content and collaborate on projects
- To get free products
- To appear as a trusted experts in their niche
- To feel or appear popular
When did this start?
Users have been able to buy fake followers and likes across most social media platforms for many years now. However, there has been an obvious spike in desperation for likes and follows since Instagram switched from a chronological feed to an user-driven algorithm-based feed about a year ago. Users saw a decline in engagement in large part due to the algorithm and have clearly been trying any and all tactics imaginable to secure a sense of relevancy in this highly competitive online world.
What are users doing to fake their following and how are they doing it?
Again, there are many ways that users are faking their following, but here are the most popular methods:
- Purchasing followers en masse from companies that exist solely for this purpose. Users can also buy followers that will follow their account at a slower rate as to not attract suspicion. Instagress was one of the most popular services but thankfully they were recently shut down.
- Using “bots” to follow thousands of other accounts through their own account in hopes that they will receive a reciprocal follow. Typically these bots will do a mass “unfollow” of any accounts that don’t follow back. This is called the “Follow/Unfollow Method.”
- Using bots to leave a predetermined comment on any photos tagged with a hashtag that the user chooses. For example, there have been several occasions where I’ve used the hashtag #canadianblogger on my photos and the same account will comment with “Canadian bloggers do it best!” I’ve seen them comment the exact same thing on countless other photos tagged with #canadianblogger. This person is definitely using a bot. They do this in hopes that you will check out their account and follow them.
- Many content creators not only buy followers, they buy likes on every photo to match up with their inflated following. An engagement rate of at least 1.5-3% (meaning, the total number of likes on a photo is 1.5-3% of the account’s total number of followers) is considered “good” in the Instagram world. Unsurprisingly, accounts with 100,000 fake followers would look suspicious if they only received 200 likes, so what do they do? They buy 3000 likes at the time of posting a photo so they can fly under the radar. I think it goes without saying, but if you follow an account with 100,000 followers and they get only 200 likes per photo, you can safely assume that they bought the majority of their following.
But what’s the harm, really?
- Imagine yourself as a business owner spending your hard earned advertising dollars on doing a campaign with an instagrammer. You send them free product, pay them several hundred to several thousands of dollars to post a photo and hope that at least a few of their several hundred thousand followers buy your product. Then, you find out that 95% of their followers are fake. Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you feel lied to?
- Admit it, you’ve let someone’s follower count influence how you regard their legitimacy, quality, or knowledge. It’s hard not to. Many of us will instinctively believe that if someone has tons of followers, they must know what they’re talking about. Cult-like, no?
- It’s totally cheating. Instagram isn’t a game, I get that. But buying followers is essentially tricking brands into working with you and cheating them out of money. It’s tarnishing an industry (user generated content) built on hard work, talent, creativity, and innovation. If brands find that their ROI (return on investment) is dismal when they work with instagrammers (who unbeknownst to the brand have faked their following) they’re not going to want to work with other instagrammers in the future. Fakers ruin great opportunities for honest and creative content creators.
- It can be addictive. People get obsessed with this sh*t, yo. They get addicted to the high of feeling popular, validated, and important. It’s not healthy. Why do we care so much about being popular online?!
- Influencers are a new brand of celebrity because we feel like we can relate to them. We feel like we have a chance to be like our favourite online persona because they’re more relatable than movie stars and supermodels. We feel like we can trust their opinion because they’re real like us. Now that Instagram is flooded with fakes and people hawking products to us 24/7, how are we supposed to continue to trust the cool girl on the other side of the iPhone screen?
- If you buy something an influencer recommends, odds are pretty high that they might make a commission on it. They’re making money off of you if you trust them. Trust people who actually earn your trust and make honest recommendations and build a loyal and trustworthy following. Don’t trust people who fake their way to the top.
Okay, so why aren’t people getting in trouble for this?
There isn’t really an authority to crack down on this, that’s why. Instagram’s terms of service make it clear that bots are not allowed, but they really don’t appear to be enforcing this rule. I’m hopeful that someday soon they’ll do another surprise sweep of fake accounts and like-bots, but only time will tell.
I’ve also heard from some friends with connections ~in the industry~ that some big corporations aren’t doing any research into the so-called-influencers that they work with. They simply start deals based on numbers alone. That’s not cool. It’s actually really disappointing. On the flip-side, many pros are doing their due diligence and know who’s who of the faking world and people are having increasing amounts of conversation about this very new problem. Let’s keep talking about it!
What more should I know?
I seriously have so much more to write about this, but this is getting really long, so I’ll be writing a Part 2 which will include:
-The telltale signs that an Instagram user is faking their following
-How much does it cost?
-Grey areas: other questionable but not-so-shady ways people are growing their following
-Info about accessing analytics
– & more.
- Erin Sousa (the incredibly talented and savvy owner of Sparkle Media)wrote this awesome blog post in August touching on many of the topics I included in this blog post, and some of the ones I’ll touch on in part 2. I strongly encourage you to read her post too and join the #takingbackinsta movement that she started. I’ll be sure not to make my part 2 redundant.
- If you want some tangible tips on how to grow your Instagram account honestly, check out this fantastic post by one of my good friends, Lauren Meisner.