17 Apr 2017

Insta-scam? Instagram fakery, how to spot it, and that time I gave it a go (and instantly regretted it...)

They say "fake it until you make it", but when it comes to your social media following, instagram in particular, I think honesty is the only policy.  Over the last week or two there's been so much chatter on social about fake followings on instagram, and the whole thing has really fascinated me.  I mean I haven't been living under a rock, I knew buying fake followers on instagram was a thing, but I don't think I appreciated the extent to which this is happening, and with bloggers / vloggers I follow and look up to.  I don't know exactly who it is (although I'll explain later how I've narrowed down my suspicions), but people have been alluding to some very big bloggers having built their whole careers on a purchased social media score, and they're living the high life on fancy blogger trips and raking in the high end makeup, handbags and so on.  It feels to me like this is all about to blow up, as people just don't want to be duped anymore, and once the PRs start to care about this too, well you bet that's going to kick up a stink!

So what is all this fakery anyway?  There are several things I know of that you can 'buy' when it comes to instagram - followers (usually fake, robot accounts), likes on your photos (again, from bots), comments on your photos (more bots) but also you can pay some bots to get out there and like and comment other people's photos too.  

I think the original Insta-scam was just to buy a fake following - overnight someone's account might go from say 1,500 followers to 20,000 followers.  I have no idea how much this kind of thing costs, but there are certainly lots of places offering this service - multiple times a day on instagram you'll see comments like "want more followers?" or "follow me to get famous on instagram" and the like.  I remember a time a while back when Instagram had a clear out of fake accounts and this caused a bit of a furore as some 'grammers fell hugely in numbers over night.  Despite having never bought any followers, I lost some at the time too - maybe 30 or so - everyone seems to have the odd bot account following them, and it's only when these are starting to make up a fair percentage of your following that it becomes clear that something inorganic is going on.  I'm not sure why, but that bot clear out seems to have been a one-off, and I think instagram need to be doing another one ASAP!

If you want to see if someone you follow has potentially purchased their following, a site worth looking at is followercheck.co - thanks to Vix Meldrew for telling me about this on twitter.  This quick and easy check gives you a rough guide to what percentage of someone's following might be fake - try a few big accounts on there, you might be surprised by what comes back!

The whole follow to unfollow nonsense that goes on with Instagram really grinds my gears too.  I'm sure we've all seen it - a big account, let's call her @superbloggersuzy (no reference to any real person intended and this account did not exist at the time of posting!), follows you and a notification pops up in the instagram activity page.  You have a look at Suzy's account and wow, she has some really great pictures - you like her style and the things that she shares, so you follow her back.  You also feel kind of pumped up that a super blogger like Suzy with her 100k following wanted to follow you, especially as she only follows 250 people...  That glow lasts all of 20 minutes, because sadly Suzy doesn't like you anymore, and she's unfollowed.  Was it that picture you just posted of your lush bath bomb?  Was the lighting not right, should you have used a filter, or maybe Suzy prefers showers?  It's none of those things - Suzy just followed you so that you'd follow her, and now that you have, she's moving on to the next.  She wants to keep growing her 100k following while keeping the number of accounts she follows as low as possible, because obviously that makes her look super cool and popular *eye roll*.  

Some bloggers will manually follow accounts and then later go back and unfollow them all, hoping that in the meantime some have followed back, whereas some will use a bot to do this, following hundreds of accounts in one go, and then later unfollowing them all again.  If you want to check for this on an account you follow (or have been followed / unfollowed by) then Social Blade is the place to have a snoop - thanks again Vix for letting me know about this one.  You can see recent follow and unfollow history - now we all follow and unfollow a number of accounts of course, that's how Instagram organically works, as you want your feed to contain images you like, but when you see @superbloggersuzy is following and unfollowing hundreds of accounts on the daily, she's paying bots to do that for her.  I've sadly seen brands doing this too, and it really harms their reputation in my opinion.

I keep an eye on people who follow / unfollow prank me using one of the many apps on the app store which will keep a record of your followers to compare to your current list when you check back.  You can quickly see who has unfollowed, and if you're feeling childish like me, you can unfollow right back!

I think some influencers are aware that it's only a matter of time before fake followings can no longer sustain them, so there are also like and comment bots which are being used to force an organic looking following.  The difference here is that no fake followers are being purchased - the 'grammer is using a bot to give them crazy levels of outgoing engagement, liking and commenting on images based on hashtags of their choosing, in that hope that some of those interactions convert to new followers.  There's been a lot of chatter on twitter about how to spot someone using a 'liking bot' so I decided to give a free trial a go to see exactly what happens, and how to spot who's faking it.  

I used a site called archie.co and it gave me a free trial (I'm unsure how long for as I stopped it before it ended) which involved the bot getting out there and liking posts in my name.  Now don't get me wrong, I don't think this is as fake as buying your whole following, but it's still disingenuous and makes for one totally uneven playing field.  So what did the bot do for me?  Well, it liked a lot of photos overnight - I gave it hashtags to look for such as #makeup and #beautyblogger, but somehow it was finding a whole lot of posts of young Asian men that it felt like liking, also bizarre promotional posts, posts in foreign languages, pornographic images, and generally stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with beauty.  Images that I would never have 'organically' found or liked in a month of Sundays.  I turned the bot off, although that didn't stop it instantly, and I found myself gong through the posts I'd liked and trying to undo some of the bizarre interactions.  It really opened my eyes to what's going on, and I was actually called out on it pretty quickly by people who follow me.  You see, instagram shares details of the posts you like, and you don't even need to go onto a special site or app to see them - it's right there on the activity page (the one with the heart).  This will usually be set to a feed of your own activity, but if you switch this to 'following' you can see what your followers are up to.  As I said, when I experimented with the bot, I was spotted almost right away, and this is why - clearly it was unusual for me to be liking pics of random men and naked ladies! I certainly won't be trying that again.

Now knowing the kind of pictures these bots like (why they don't manage to seek out the generally lovely pictures I can see with my own eyes when I search beauty related tags I'll never know!) it's really clear to me when I look on the activity page as to who is cheating.  Now as I mentioned, I don't deem using a robot for likes to be as bad as buying followers, but, in the example of the one 30kish well-known blogger I spotted liking random photos, a quick look on the follower check site I mentioned suggested over a quarter of her followers are fakes.  So there you go - had she not been inflating the likes she's giving out, I probably would never have though her following might be fake in the first place.

There are also bots that can be paid for to place comments on various posts - again I think this is based on hashtags, so similar to the like bots, it might choose some irrelevant or bizarre photos.  I also think it's pretty obvious to spot a comment from a bot, as they're always so generic and say things like "great pic!" with lots of emojis.  I've seen some cheery robot comments that feel really inappropriate when you actually read the caption on a post - like one I saw where a bot had commented something along the lines of "Cool photo!!!" on a post that was about someone remembering their Mum who had passed away.  Some things just can't be faked by a bot, well not properly anyway.

My best recommendation is to keep your eyes open and to keep talking about this on social media - the more people that become aware of all of the instagram fakery, the less worthwhile it will become for people to pay for followers and engagement, and maybe we can all go back to playing nicely like it was 2009 again.  Instagram also really need to be doing something about this problem, rather than messing with the alogrithm twenty times a day!

Come say hi on instagram @fluttersparkle  if you like - I promise not to follow / unfollow prank you!


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