The devious tactic of purchasing followers and likes to boost clout is nothing novel for influencers, but emerging technologies are identifying ways to help brands sniff out fraudulent behavior.
After Unilever CMO Keith Weed announced last week that the company will be taking measures to avoid working with influencers with fake followers, retailers are taking note to do the same. According to influencer marketing software company InfluencerDB, an estimated 25 percent of sponsored posts on Instagram are shared by influencers using illicit audience-growth tactics, ultimately costing brand partners a collective $500 million per year in marketing resources used for access to fake followers.
InfluencerDB CEO Robert Levenhagen said influencers now have an array of black-market services at their fingertips, including a number of websites run by hackers that can quickly manufacture fake accounts across social media platforms. These fake followers can be purchased in bulk, and cost anywhere from $5 to $50 for 1,000 followers on a platform like Instagram, depending on the quality of the accounts. The more realistic they appear, as opposed to an obvious bot account, the more it costs, and the trickier it is to spot. Instagram now appears to be following in the footsteps of Twitter and Facebook, which over the years have become overrun with bots. According to an expansive New York Times report in January, an estimated 48 million Twitter accounts, or 15 percent of total users, are simulated bots, while Facebook reported that 60 million of its users are automated accounts.
Though influencers aren’t the only ones partaking in the practice — as early as 2013 brands like Louis Vuitton and Pepsi were accused of purchasing followers on Twitter to boost search-engine optimization — there has been a recent trend of bloggers using the move to dupe brands. Retailers have been particularly vulnerable to this trickery as they struggle to understand how to best use influencers to their advantage. While in the past brands clamored for a coveted product placement by a Kardashian on Instagram, the game has shifted now that microinfluencers with 30,000 followers or less are delivering higher engagement levels.
In response, Levenhagen’s company has developed technology that helps brands such as H&M, Daniel Wellington and Mercedes-Benz identify suspicious follower fluctuations on Instagram, while also sharing educational content like blog posts that include tips to spot fraudulent behavior. Meanwhile, similar programs are cropping up to help companies identify fakes on Instagram like FollowerCheck, Auditor for Instagram and FakeCheck, as well as on Twitter such as Twitter Audit.
“There’s a whole industry that exists around faking things on the internet,” Levenhagen said. “Whenever there’s a platform gaining momentum, people want to look more successful on it than they are. This started with Facebook, when people were buying likes and friends, and then went to Instagram.”
As a result, Levenhagen and his team started tracking follower counts for prominent influencers in a variety of industries and taking note of questionable upticks. One recent example is influencer Natalie Lim Suarez, the model behind the blog Natalie Off Duty, who was flagged for racking up nearly 15,000 followers between June 10 and June 11, a significantly higher rate from her average daily increase. Ultimately, the service is intended to help fashion and beauty brands that have partnered with her in the past — including Amazon Fashion, Olay, Longchamp, Michael Kors and Bloomingdale’s — make informed business choices.
A recent sponsored post shared by Natalie Lim Suarez, who InfluencerDB suspects is purchasing followers
Levenhagen said one of the biggest pitfalls among brands and marketing agencies is they aren’t doing thorough vetting before forging influencer relationships, exacerbated by the lack of stringent oversight from social media platforms to control the behavior. Though the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on influencers for failing to disclose sponsored content, monitoring the market for fake followers has proven to be more of a challenge. This is in part because the buying and selling of accounts is tricky to trace and usually done using wire transfers or anonymous PayPal accounts.
Ultimately, it comes down to the brands to be more vigilant, Levenhagen said, since the social platforms have done relatively little to combat fake followers. Though Facebook rolled out a tool that uses IP addresses and signals to flag potentially fake pages and Twitter announced a new API earlier this year that could better curb bot accounts, Instagram has continued to struggle to manage the onslaught of fake accounts. In 2017, it began challenging third-party services that sell followers and was successful in shutting down Instagress; however, several underground services remain.
Still, Levenhagen said there are several easy tricks that brand marketers can employ, such as analyzing video views on Instagram posts. If the views on an influencer post are significantly lower than the total number of followers — for example, if someone with 500,000 followers only has 10,000 views — something might be amiss.
“Some of these providers are very stupid in their approach, and it’s easy to find the fake accounts if you know what to look for,” he said.