Words By Tiffany Farrington

When I was invited to speak at MediaSocial on any topic in our industry, there was only one I wanted to have a friendly rant about.

It seems the entire world has been taken over by influencers, so I prefer the term influenzas. It’s like a virus that has seeped through every facet of our lives and our industry – and like anything unregulated, the rampant buying of followers is obscene and frankly, depressing.

Just as a disclaimer, I am not anti-influencer. I’m just anti-fraud, and pro-authenticity. I’ve never taken a selfie but I’ve worked with clients for 20 years and helped them direct their marketing budgets. Now that so much of the kitty is going towards influencers, an estimate of $570m last year, $1b this year – and when people with 100k followers can earn $800 per post and the Kardashians up to half a million – surely we all want to make sure it’s being spent wisely?

Despite the changes at Instagram, with the new algorithms slowly decreasing the organic reachinfluencers get – everyone is still chasing higher vanity metrics. And as far as growth goes, there are 3 kinds: organic, fake & what Influencer DB defines as ”the betwixt & between” neither organic nor fake.

Obviously the ideal is organic: consistent growth from genuine fans who are usually highly engaged. The early adopters were able to achieve huge organic growth as the platform rapidly took off. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Organic growth is considered poor at 0-2% and very good at 7.5%. So of course it’s going to be suss when you see an account with growth of 20% plus. This of course doesn’t include Schapelle who gained 100k in her first 24 hours and is now up to almost 200k!

Then there’s fake growth, from dummy accounts that do not represent anything remotely human. And despite being SO obvious, people are still buying fake followers in their thousands. No profile pic, lots of numbers in their name, no posts, huge chunks of people from Uzbekistan, following 30 thousand people but have no followers, need I go on.

It’s estimated that a whopping 40% of comments are fake now. It can be funny when you see an Instagrammer post a pic of a steak and their fake followers say things such as ‘cute!’ or ‘sexy!’ but it’s also bloody annoying and there’s definitely a serious side when these people with huge followings have brands throwing money, products and international trips at them. It’s hard to imagine anyone not agreeing that this is outright fraud when money changes hands – and brands are suffering.

“From an ethical perspective as well as a legal one, deceiving potential business partners by faking reach with the help of purchased followers is fraud. In a worst case scenario, the company’s investment in the cooperation will be lost completely”

There have been gestures to clear out fake accounts such as the Great Instagram Purge of December 2014. It makes me realise how long I’ve been frustrated by Instafraud because 2 and a half years ago I remember being so excited as it drew near (they gave everyone 2 weeks notice) – so the day before I wrote down every local Instagrammer I thought had bought fake followers and the number they had that day. I woke to a feeling of real validation to see some popular accounts in Sydney taken down a peg or two, or in some cases from 20k to 2k. I thought it was such a defining moment and there was a lot of egg on faces.

I didn’t gloat or share my thoughts with anyone, I just felt like it was a small win for the ethical of the world. Spare a thought for Justin Bieber who lost 3.5m. #PoorBiebs 😉

This was unfortunately very short-lived, as just a few weeks later the worst offenders simply started buying them back. One I had my eye on swiftly went up higher than it was before, to 34k within a couple of months. A year later a Wall Street Journal report cited researchers who said the effort ‘barely made a dent’. There was a second smaller Instapurge in September last year but of course it hasn’t slowed anything down. Lower numbers affect their advertising rates so you can imagine they’re not too fussed about it.

Then there’s the third method for growth. The neither fake nor organic.

This way is becoming extremely popular – having bots do all the hard work for you. Some people are confused as to whether there’s anything wrong with this method as the followers are real, not fake. I used to go: “wow that’s so nice of this person/brand to follow me and like 3 of my posts in a row!”

So naïve.

If you see a follow then 3 likes, that’s a bot. I downloaded an unfollow app to monitor them and observed it can be up to 2 weeks later they automatically unfollow you. That’s unless of course you do follow them, at which point they unfollow you immediately!

One site to check for bots is SocialBlade. High spikes of follows and unfollows in a day show these bots hard at work. The average person doesn’t follow or unfollow more than a handful of accounts every day so it’s the clearest indicator you can get for free online.

Because the bots are doing this at a rapid rate, your account can grow really fast – but how is this fair when real Instagram talent has emerged whose followers are gained organically? Ethics, transparency and authenticity have gone out the window as people race to get higher and higher numbers that bear no reflection on the content they’re producing. If only they knew there’s no real finish line, they’ve got to keep running by creating compelling content to stop all the rampant unfollows. A sure fire way to tell if someone has bots is when they have a massive following and their content is outrageously mediocre!

The question here is, is it fraud? Deceptive – yes. Technically fraud, perhaps no – because the followers are real, albeit acquired in a fast tracked way more efficiently than any human could do it. But I can’t stand it, it’s cheating the system, it floods our feeds with spammy crap and the authentic & talented content creators lose out. Facebook & Insta explicitly “forbid the participation in any ‘like’, ‘share’, ‘comment’ or ‘follower’ exchange programs”, and Twitter is quite distinct about prohibiting these actions, referring to it as “aggressive follower churn”. But that aint stopping anyone for now.

I spoke to the fabulous Jules Lund from Tribe this week who feels exactly the same as me – he says “Regardless if your intention is to bring real people to your account, the actions you take fills everyone’s accounts with bot behaviour. It’s like printing more money. If you print more money, it lowers the value of the whole economy.”

I won’t name and shame – but someone I know has successfully managed to quit her job based on having 200k followers, the majority of which were bought as fakes as well as accrued via bots. Using a really basic fake follower checker (FameAudit) she has a whopping 79.8% suspicious followers and high bot activity on SocialBlade. She does sponsored posts and skips around the world to major events. She’s living the life and is perhaps aware that it could all come to an end very soon. I think it’s up to you all as to how you feel about her and others using this method to scam freebies in the tens of thousands of dollars. Personally, I think it’s horrendous.

So if she’s beaten the system, should you? As one millennial friend said to me when I asked his opinion, “but everyone’s doing it”.  So does that make it ok? Everyone’s faking it so you should too? There is absolutely no question that a high number of followers increases your organic growth. People like things that appear to be popular, it’s a truth as old as time. As Carrie said on Sex & The City, ‘the only thing a girl needs to get a date, is another date’. Perception is reality. So the people who are doing this have certainly given themselves a massive edge over individuals and brands struggling to make their first 10k the natural way. It’s like being in a maths exam and everyone has a calculator but you.

Of course there are consequences for the user in buying followers and using bots – it makes it likely to get suspended or banned, then there’s the Instagram Shadowban, the loss of credibility etc. All annoying. But for brands, it’s dire. Evidence shows that while bot-bought followers may be real, they are rarely engaged like organic followers are – with many unfollowing a couple of months afterwards if the content isn’t suited to them or it’s mediocre. Thus, the follower group is ever-changing, making building a real community impossible. Brands need to be doing a deeper analysis than just examining number of followers and engagement – it’s simply not enough.

“Anything that mimics real engagement but isn’t, is bad for the ecosystem.
If I’m being followed by 2,000 accounts each day but they’re following me then unfollowing me… when a brand is paying me for my followers, they are still buying a layer of bot behaviour that eyeballs aren’t seeing”
-Jules Lund, Tribe

The only real solution is to level the playing field. Everyone in the exam room either gets a calculator or no one does. Just like the blanket ban on performance enhancing drugs in sport – we all know how we’d feel if we were racing against a Lance Armstrong. And there are so many goddamn Lances on social media!

So, Instagram either needs to take a stand, a more aggressive one than a purge every couple of years, or we do. There does seem to be some movement from the Insta camp. Last month they caused the world’s largest bot company Instagress to shut down – but of course there are so many, so what does shutting down the biggest one achieve? It’s a hollow gesture. And with the current surge of human bots aka Instagram Pods – users are just finding new and sneakier ways to outsmart the algorithms.

“It’s safe to say Instagrammers will adapt, and what a few are already calling the renewal of Instagram’s ‘war’ on inflated follower counts will probably end up being more like a game of whack-a-mole”
-The Verge

As far as we, the people, taking a stand, it’s up to the legitimate influencers to come out and declare their authenticity, putting themselves fully up for analysis at the same time. And agencies need to get behind this too. A PR person I know kept inviting one Instagrammer to their parties, even though this person had bought all their followers (the fake kind not the bots) and they knew it. I questioned her on this and she said ‘but the client sees their follower number and is impressed by it’. So by either not doing their analysis or not pushing back on their clients with the facts, agencies can perpetuate the fraud. No wonder fake news is the buzz word of our era when we are all so seemingly complicit in the generation of it.

And then there’ll always be those of us who want to wave their little authenticity flag, because for an ethical person this is never a choice. It just is. And as brands become wiser and the Instagrammer bubble seems about to burst with the slow death of organic reach, the pendulum could swing back to microinfluencers with small but fiercely engaged followers devoted to their particular niche. This is something that Tribe does brilliantly and I suggest PRs wanting to engage with real influencers to get in touch with them. Until authenticity becomes something to strive for rather than an over-peddled word with little value anymore, nothing will change and everyone will have to buy their followers to keep up. Where does it end?

The future is surely CONTENT. Compelling & authentic content that followers keep coming back for constantly.
Brands doing seriously deep dives on influencers.
A flushing of the fakers.

And more authenticity, please. We can only hope.