Social media is a very strange phenomenon. It is a medium that seemingly puts people in direct contact with their “idols” – models, actors, artists, athletes, and influential people of all kinds. Today, those not on a major social network are pretty much invisible to an entire demographic that lives a rich digital life. This is why brands use the massive reach of social media “influencers” to put themselves in front of their potential customers. Having a large following on social networks can be worth a pretty decent sum – the exposure is virtual yet the money made is perfectly real. The internet is full of articles stressing the importance of a strong social media presence and top tips to boost your Instagram following, your Facebook page likes or your Twitter followers. Those with thousands, hundreds of thousands of followers on these networks are often asking for freebies in exchange for “exposure” and pocketing hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars for one sponsored tweet, Instagram story and Facebook share.
How big is the following of these influencers? About half as big as it seems, a recent study conducted in the UK shows.
A recent study conducted by Swedish startup A Good Company and HypeAuditor, an AI-powered fake Instagram follower detector, has evaluated more than 1.8 million Instagram accounts across 82 countries has found that more than half of them engage in some type of fraudulent activity.
In most cases, the following of influencers is boosted through the purchase of mass followers, likes, and comments made by “engagement bots”. The metrics boosted by these users – vanity metrics, as they are often called – are used by marketers to assess their potential value for their advertising campaigns. This fraudulent activity costs marketers an estimated $700 million a year, in a market that’s worth around $1.7 billion. That’s a big pile of money.
More than half of Instagram influencers all over the world have admitted having either bought followers and comments or using engagement bots in the past – and around a fifth of them responded, in an anonymous survey, that they intend to continue doing so in the future. The markets with the largest number of fake users in the world are the US (almost 50 million), Brazil (more than 27 million) and India, with 16 million. “Companies are pouring money into influencer marketing, thinking that they are connecting with real people and not Russian bots,” A Good Company CEO Anders Ankarlid told PRWeek. “In reality, they are pouring money down the drain and giving away free products to someone who acquired a mass-following overnight.”
The leading social networks in the world have repeatedly tried to clean up their mess by deleting accounts that have been proven to be fake. Last November, Instagram has purged millions of fake accounts from its network – some users lost hundreds of them, others, thousands… and some of the most followed individuals on the network, millions. Celebrities like Ariana Grande (3 million) and Selena Gomez (2 million) have seen their Insta following drop drastically with the purge. A similar action undertaken by Twitter in 2018 has left many popular accounts without millions of followers – a total of 64 accounts of the most followed ones lost more than 1 million followers as a result. And early this year, Facebook has also deleted a stunning 2.19 billion fake accounts.
There is a lot of money to be made through social media advertising, and a lot of this money goes into the pockets of social media influencers. The practice of boosting follower counts and faking engagement means that marketers spend money on nothing – they pay to get their message out to the world, and it only reaches bots and fake accounts.