Fakery seems to have infected every corner of the internet, with the gaming of algorithms now influencing everything from the news to political campaigns. And marketing is no different. Influencers are the latest group to buy fake followers in order to boost their appeal. But while a large follower count may look good, as Dave Waller discovers, this isn’t just a numbers game…

You don’t need massive resources to be an online spook. Nik Speller has been known to do his digital detective work from a Kings Cross branch of Pret a Manger. And he’s found that, if you want to investigate which social media accounts are using automated bots and other fraudulent methods to drive up their number of followers – and thus appear more influential than they really are – all you need is a bit of technical nous, five spare minutes and some wi-fi. 

Speller, head of campaigns at Influencer, a UK-based marketing agency, has been banging the drum on influencer fraud for a few years, motivated by what he describes as a “blur of morality and commerce”.

“Social media marketing is an interesting and exciting industry that I really like, but things like fraud do immeasurable damage to it, internally and externally,” he says. “People see accounts having shit content and buying loads of followers, and they dismiss the field as crap. This fraudulence also waters down the prices people can command. And when you see small brands spending lots of money on people who don’t have a legitimate following, it’s disheartening.”

That may be an understatement. In 2018, the New York Times shared the story of Jessica Rychly, a teenager from Minnesota who “likes reading and the rapper Post Malone”, but whose account on Twitter, while employing the same name, photo and bio, “promoted accounts hawking Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana”. Her account also retweeted others called Squirtamania and Porno Dan.

Jessica was just one example of an account belonging to customers of a US company named Devumi, the subject of a New York Times investigation into companies selling fake followers. Devumi had provided its customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, using at least 3.5 million automated accounts – over 55,000 of which used the names, profile pics, and other personal details of real Twitter users.

“Social media marketing is an interesting and exciting industry, but things like fraud do immeasurable damage to it, internally and externally. People see accounts having shit content and buying loads of followers, and they dismiss the field as crap.”

Nik Speller, head of campaigns, Influencer

Fiddling the figures

The world of social media marketing remains, as many observers have said, a Wild West, one that offers low regulations, low understanding and high reward. And there’s clearly money to be made from the illusion of having a mass audience. Follower fraud in marketing comes in several forms, not all of them the type to hog headlines. There’s the practice of buying fake followers and the appropriate fake engagement to help that following appear more believable. Then there are the companies employing bots to mimic human activity and encourage real people to follow a given account. For a small fee, such companies will send these bots bouncing around social media, commenting and liking posts that fit specified hashtags; following other accounts to build connections; and then unfollowing them, leaving the client with an impressive-looking follower ratio.

According to Speller, brands have largely abandoned the first type, and many have stopped doing the second. “Lots of social media agencies made their money out of doing these things for brands, often without the brands knowing,” he says. “And lots stopped – before the brands found out how they really earned their money.”

Yet while brands have largely cottoned on to the lack of value in cultivating fake audiences – it’s hard for your followers to get excited about your service if they don’t actually exist, for example – the practice remains a hot topic thanks to another emerging phenomenon: the influencer. With huge brands clamouring to reward the most powerful influencers with thousands of dollars for Instagram and Snapchat posts that hawk their wares, many wannabe influencers will buy fake followings to give themselves a shot at the spoils. 

You don’t need to be a detective to see the gaping flaw there. According to a recent report by Points North Group, of the $744 million that brands spent on influencer marketing in 2018, $102 million was wasted on fake followers, with brands such as Clarins skin care, Ritz-Carlton and Unilever’s Dove all blowing significant chunks of their influencer marketing budgets on followers that weren’t real. Towards the end of last year, Instagram was forced to announce a crackdown on fake followers. Unilever, meanwhile, came out saying it would no longer work with influencers who were found to have them. Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed had previously described the phenomenon as misleading, at best. “At worst it’s corrupt,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Driven to the dark side

So what’s driving everyday people with a dream and a social media account to pursue corrupt means? The money is obviously a major factor – brands clearly use follower numbers as a key factor in deciding which influencers to tie up with. And buying a fake following is the one guaranteed way for wannabe influencers to get their attention, especially if they lack the patience or the talent for the challenging task of building a following organically.

The issue for any influencer tempted to go down this road is that, as Speller has found, it’s incredibly easy to spot when someone’s following is fake. He points to an investigation he carried out in January, looking at the follow and unfollow patterns of influencers who worked on a recent campaign for a shaving brand. The graphs reveal engagement that was clearly automated, designed to follow and unfollow hundreds of accounts every few days, in order to grow its following. This information tends to be damaging for a brand when it comes out in the wash, as it eats into its integrity. As Speller pointed out here, he’d found “a brand getting praise for challenging toxic masculinity, and then working with toxic influencers”. As for the fall-out from the Devumi case, Michael Dell, Martha Lane Fox and Paul Hollywood were among those plastered across the press for having bought fake followers.

But there’s another, arguably more fundamental issue with buying fake followers: it doesn’t work. Yes it may get an influencer work from naive or lax brands, and provide a short-term fix, but it’s not an effective way of maintaining a large audience. Alberto Acerbi is an anthropologist at the Eindhoven University of Technology, working in the field of cultural evolution – with a specific interest in understanding online behaviour. According to him, buying fake followers is destined to fail for one simple fact of evolution: we’re not actually as gullible as we may be led to believe.

“From an evolutionary perspective, we are a very social species,” he says. “Our natural environment isn’t the forest or savanna. It’s other people. Our cognitive abilities have been built for social interactions and learning from others, so we are relatively good at recognizing when people are tricking us. I’m sure that some successful influencers bought fake followers; and maybe they became successful because of fake followers. But it would be interesting to know how many wannabe influencers tried to buy fake followers and completely failed at becoming a real influencer.”

Acerbi insists that genuine online popularity is not just a simple question of numbers. It’s about trust, competence and consistency too. As such, anyone who’s just been handed a budget to throw at influencer marketing would be wise to look beyond the figures, to the quality of the offering. Take, for example, micro-influencers, those valued not because of numerics, but for the knowledge they clearly possess, and the trust they engender.

“In general, micro-influencers are people that know the thing they’re doing,” says Acerbi. “Their expertise is trusted, and they display a relationship with the content, and confidence in the domain. If the influencer is a cook, and we see her sincerely talk about cooking and giving good advice, it makes sense to listen to her, because she probably knows more than us. So instead of worrying about prestige and fake likes, provide good, reliable, cognitively-appealing content. It’s not particularly exciting, but it works.”

“Micro-influencers are people that know the thing they’re doing. Their expertise is trusted, they display a relationship with the content and confidence in the domain. Instead of worrying about prestige and fake likes, provide good, reliable, cognitively-appealing content.”

Alberto Acerbi, anthropologist, Eindhoven University of Technology

But even in the world of micro-influencers tied closely to their subject matter, those dishing out the influencer budgets would still be wise to pay attention to motivations.

Scott Williams is a veteran of the digital marketing world, who shares an experience of working with a wannabe influencer who suffered from eczema, and wanted to build a social media presence around helping fellow sufferers cure theirs. “On the face of it I thought this was great,” he says. “But she wasn’t interested in helping people. It was all absolutely about her being perceived to be a fucking legend. She spent half the year in Ibiza doing nothing – resting, sleeping and eating healthily. We told her that if she wanted to do the stuff we were talking about properly, she’d have to spend a year getting to know people. Keep it low key, build a base and do it genuinely. But she just wanted to be famous.”

While he’s not making a direct connection between this particular influencer and fake followers, he places this narcissism at the root of what would drive someone to shell out for a following that’s not even real. He’s also quick to point out that it’s not a problem unique to influencers. When he was working at Google, he was told by a music company that, for a lot of the outdoor campaigns they ran, they would place large posters on the route that the CEO drove to work in the mornings, just so he could see them. Buying fake followers is, he says, the influencer’s means of stoking their own ego in the same way.

“Of course, buying the numbers gives you gravitas,” says Williams. “It’s the network effect: the algorithm, and therefore the people, will move towards the account with a million followers, versus someone with a thousand. But it’s the relationship people have with themselves to get to that decision that’s part of the bigger problem. Where are you in the spectrum of your esteem where it makes you feel better to know that you’re buying fake followers or fake fans, and then to broadcast that figure knowing that those people aren’t even real? What’s that? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Rotten game

But that lack of sense is hardly confined to the inside of the influencer’s mind. With the media spend flooding to platforms owned by Facebook and Google, two algorithmic-built, AI-powered businesses, so much of our reality is now determined by the impact of casual likes and dislikes. We have far more potential to connect with a far wider range of people, yet we don’t necessarily know who they are or what they know, or whether we can trust them. Billions of dollars are being poured into gaming algorithms that reach into everyone’s lives and are designed to reward a narrow band of behaviours. And it’s not exactly being done altruistically. As a result, we’re likely to be in for a bumpy ride before we reach the point where it does start to make sense – if indeed we ever do.

Reactions to this emerging picture may vary. Acerbi maintains that humans aren’t gullible enough to be swayed to any troubling degree by fake followers, that he’s “quite relaxed” about fake news, insisting that we’re no more exposed to dodgy information now than ever before. There’s more fake information, he says, but more real information too. And more ways to check the veracity of sources.

Williams takes a different position, that the gaming of algorithms which drives follower fraud is a fundamental problem that draws a wide range of interlocking factors together in a “rotten” picture that’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to avoid.

“Trump’s using the platforms and gaming the algorithms, and so are Johnson and Johnson and Nike. And Isis, and Russia, which boasts openly of using these platforms for psychological warfare, with bot farms employing thousands of people to pump out content all day to influence other countries. It’s just an absolute shit-show. For brands it’s still all about growth – the more followers and likes you have, the better. The point is no one in marketing is actually asking what harm marketing is doing to people, society and culture. They’re going: ‘Maybe we’ll give our product to someone on Instagram and they can talk about it.’ At some point you just have to look at it objectively and go: ‘This is awful, isn’t it.’ Just fucking madness. None of this is sustainable, at all.”

“For brands it’s still all about growth – the more followers and likes you have, the better. The point is no one in marketing is actually asking what harm marketing is doing to people, society and culture.”

Scott Williams, digital marketer

Still interested in buying views?

The bad news for Williams is it seems the issue of follower fraud is destined to remain a hot topic for the next few years. Visit Devumi’s site now and you get a message informing you that it’s no longer taking new clients, but it is recommending other services “if you’re interested in buying views”.

Speller points out that he still sees ads for similar services popping up in Instagram Stories.

“These services are now saying they don’t use bots, they use real people,” says Speller. “A bot may like the holiday snaps from a guy in Atlanta with four followers, who you have no connection to. These new services tell us what you like and we’ll fine tune it for you. But it’s still fraudulent.”

Speller expresses doubts that Instagram’s measures will work. Past attempts to halt bots have only led to fraudulent companies finding new ways to exploit loopholes. Given that he could sit in a branch of Pret and find out who’s at it in just a few minutes’ digging, he finds it hard to believe that the likes of Facebook and Google don’t have the resources to weed out fake activity on a wider level. Unless, he suggests, they don’t want us to know. Perhaps dealing with the scale of the fakery in people’s accounts would expose just how much of Facebook’s own figures hinge on automated bots rather than genuine flesh-and-blood humans. Suddenly it wouldn’t just be the social media agencies facing some uncomfortable conversations about what chicanery is taking place behind the curtain. But maybe for the sake of teenagers who want to share their genuine love of Post Malone without risking being linked to porn sites, we may need to find a way to get them talking. 

“You have these powerful tools doing brilliant things,” says Speller. “But they can do that for good and for evil. And that’s why I like working in the industry. It’s not just about technology. It strays into the realms of morality.”

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