In the wake of recent media buying scandals and concerns around production budgets and spending, transparency of media and production buying and the effectiveness of advertisers’ investments in these services is becoming increasingly important and frequently scrutinised.
This raises the question of how advertisers and agencies might conduct due diligence in respect of buying more unconventional, non-traditional media such as the content created and exposure generated through social media influencers. This is especially true where the return and effectiveness of the media investment are difficult to accurately assess.
Given the ability of some influencers to command significant dollars for spruiking brands and products on their social media platforms, questions arise about their ability to not only reach but to engage consumers and convert those engagements to sales. This is where it becomes important for advertisers and agencies alike to conduct due diligence on the influencer and in particular, their followers.
Social media platform algorithms aside, it is well established that in general, the higher the follower count, the higher the engagement. For aspiring influencers, the faster a high follower number can be reached, the greater the prospect of being engaged by advertisers willing to pay for the influencer’s services, either directly or via influencer platforms.
The challenge of spotting fake Instagram accounts
As more and more people attempt to establish themselves as influencers, it is becoming increasingly challenging for social media users to grow followers organically due to an abundance of impressive content being created and ever-changing social media algorithms.
For those struggling to reach a high follower count, the easy option of purchasing followers may seem enticing. It has been reported that more than 10% of influencers have fake and inactive followers or bots. Furthermore, it is now becoming apparent that some well-established influencers have a dark past. Whilst they now have a genuine follower base, they originally grew their following through questionable means.
While advertisers are becoming more aware of how to spot extra-fraudinary influencers, such as through their high follower vs low post engagement, large follower count despite the profile’s newness, ‘spammy’ follower usernames and the use of social media account auditing tools, it is likely that extra-fraudinary influencers may slip through the cracks.
How to identify fake accounts on social media
For advertisers wary of how to spot an extra-fraudinary influencer, sites & agencies are becoming increasingly valuable in helping with due diligence on social influencers and the veracity of their stated communities. So before blowing your influencer marketing budget on something that won't deliver the desired ROI, here are some simple tips on how to spot fake followers on Instagram accounts and other social media platforms.
Tip #1 - Undertake a fake followers audit
Manually look through the account of any potential brand influencer to see if they have bought followers. This can be done by scrolling through their followers or comments to see if there are any inactive or low-quality accounts. You can also check for sudden spikes in follower numbers (which could suggest bought followers).
Further, you can check out if their followers belong to these key groups:
- Accounts with no photos or posts - A high percentage of fake followers will have little to no photos or posts, as they are created primarily for the purpose of increasing an account's follower count.
- Accounts with spammy comments - A fake account with fake followers will often have comments that are nothing more than spam, such as a link to a website or multiple emojis. They also bombard accounts with unrelated hashtags.
- Accounts with few friends - If an account has a high number of followers but very few friends (or none at all), this is another sign that the followers may be fake.
- Accounts with a high number of follows but no followers - If an account has a high number of posts, but very few followers, this is another sign that the followers may be fake.
- Fan-buying accounts - Accounts that have been created with the sole purpose of buying followers who would often send random DMs to other users to push the account they want to grow.
Tip #2 - Use social media account auditing tools
There are a number of different tools available online that allow users to audit their social media followers to see how many are fake or inactive. Software to detect fake followers and likes on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, or Facebook can be accessed online or as downloadable apps for free on most devices.
Here are some examples of tools that can be used to identify fake influencers and followers:
- Grin's Fake Influencer and Credibility Tool, which serves as a comparison tool to check influencer engagement and metrics
- Social Auditor, a tool that lets you analyse any Instagram profile for fake followers, likes, comments, and true demographic and also features a quality score
- SparkToro's Fake Followers Audit, which lets you analyse any Twitter account to uncover an estimated percentage of inactive, spam, bot or other fake followers
- FakeCheck, a leading tool that scans fake followers against the real ones
- HypeAuditor, a paid tool that comes with audience quality filters for checking the number of legit followers an influencer has
Whilst these tools are not 100% accurate, they can provide a useful starting point or benchmark for brands looking to verify an influencer's following and identify fake followers.
Tip #3 - Assess the influencer's engagement rates
If an advertiser is still unsure about an influencer, they can request some engagement data from the influencer. This could be as simple as asking for screenshots of recent posts that have received a high amount of likes and comments or asking the influencer to share their most popular posts from the past week or month.
Tip #4 - Evaluate their presence on other social networks
While this might be a sweeping generalisation, many influencers will have accounts on several social media platforms following the same themes and voice, whereas fake influencers tend to only keep Instagram active as it is the easiest and quickest platform for buying fake followers. If the influencer you are assessing has a high number of followers on the platform but no presence on other platforms like Facebook or TikTok, this could be a sign that their followers are fake.
It is important to remember that there are always exceptions to these rules, and an influencer with a high number of fake followers does not automatically mean that they are not a credible source of information. It could be because of their audience size. For example, an audit of Kim Kardashian's Instagram account might reveal that only 3/4 of her audience are real accounts, but that's still an acceptable ratio because she has 290 million followers.
Tip #5 - Read the comments on the influencer's account
Many fake followers will only like or comment on the posts without actually reading them. If the majority of comments on an influencer's account are spammy, promotional, or just don't make sense, this could be a sign that their followers are fake. Bear in mind that some bots and spammers might leave legitimate-looking comments as part of their scheme. Watch out for comments such as "Hey sexy!" or "Nice pic!" as these are usually a clue that the commenter is not a real person.
As social media platforms become more sophisticated in their efforts to detect and penalise fake accounts, it is important that advertisers take measures to protect their brands by undertaking due diligence on any potential brand influencers. By being aware of the signs of fake followers, brands can avoid being scammed by fraudulent accounts and ensure that their marketing dollars are well spent.
But what are the implications then where an influencer has misled an advertiser about their following? Particularly where this leads to the advertiser paying for the influencer’s services on the basis that they have a significant following and on the understanding that they would have a significant reach to consumers?
Is it illegal to buy fake followers on Instagram?
Under section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), a person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive. Under section 29 of the ACL a person must not, in trade or commerce, in the connection with the supply or possible supply of services or in connection with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of services, make a false or misleading representation that the services have sponsorship, approval, performance characteristics, accessories, uses or benefits that they do not have.
Influencers must therefore be aware that falsifying their followers, or maintaining a dark past of ‘fake’ followers in order to represent to advertisers that they should be engaged to promote the brand, could see them fall foul of the Australian Consumer Law and breach sections 18 and 29. In some cases, it may amount to fraud.
Furthermore, an influencer who is found to have misrepresented their ability to influence their followers due to their followers being fake is likely to have a hard time convincing other advertisers to engage them and, if made public, may place at risk the all-important influencer qualities – trustworthiness and authenticity.
Tips for engaging influencers, the legal way
Agencies and advertisers who engage influencers should:
- use trusted influencer platforms (for example theright.fit) that take steps to vet influencers and provide transparency on influencer audiences and engagement and analytics insights.
- conduct direct due diligence on proposed influencers to determine if their following is authentic
- consider using audit tools for verification purposes
- ensure you enter into an appropriate agreement with each influencer which mitigates agency and brand risk