How fake followers are still a problem in 2021

You may be surprised to hear that in just a few clicks of a button it is possible to purchase 1000 Instagram followers for as little as £10. You are promised “fast delivery” of these followers and it is done in such a way as to avoid being banned by Instagram – so the website says. The truth is that the website I found is just one of many that have sprung up in recent years offering short cuts to boosting social media followings and, as one company put it, “a whole new way to play the social media marketing game”. Whilst companies like these may seem like they’re helping influencers and brands, they are actually doing more harm than good.

Building distrust

With every new headline and scandal around fake followers on social media, more distrust is spread amongst users. People often complain that social media is full of fakery and lies, unfortunately this isn’t far off the truth. Many people (and brands!) would rather cut corners and pay for fake followers than put in the actual time and effort needed to build up a social media following from scratch. The trouble is, whilst these wannabe-influencers might think they’re getting ahead, they’ll lose out in the long run. Professional brands are starting to vet influencers more and more before partnering with them.

A brand’s influencer vetting process often involves crunching the numbers on their followers and seeing how engaged they are. This is when those with fake-followers can be found out. If an Instagrammer boasts tens of thousands of followers but cannot also show that those fans are engaged with the content they put out, then a brand will be much less likely to use them for a marketing campaign.

High engagement rates are key for brands because engagement with sponsored content has a much higher chance of turning into increased sales of products than simply if the content is seen and then ignored.

Typically, a brand looking to partner with an macro-influencer will look for an engagement rate of at least 2.5% per post, rising to 5% percent for micro or nano influencers (for a detailed breakdown of the different levels of influencers check out my post here). These numbers might not sound like much but they’re hard to achieve consistently and near impossible if your follower count is made up of a majority of fake users.

How big is the problem?

Research by TechRobot has found that the issue of fake followers might be more of an issue than you might think. Whilst social media platforms are more aware of the issue than say five years ago, they’re struggling to deal with the problem. It took me all of five minutes to find a website where I could purchase fake followers in a matter of clicks. If I can access fake followers so easily, then so can the over 1 billion Instagram accounts active today.

“TechRobot estimate that the Kardashian clan have over 276 million fake followers combined”

The worst offenders

A alluded to earlier, companies are starting to look into the issue of fake accounts on social media platforms more and more. After all, the influencing industry is worth upwards of $8 billion and the problem is only going to get worse as the industry grows. TechRobot conducted an audit last month and found out which Instagram accounts have the highest rate of fake followers. For their audit, TechRobot focused on the top 10 accounts in the worlds of sport, music, film, politics, retail and television and their results might shock you.

The worst celebrity offender was Paris Hilton, with over a quarter (29%) of her following found to be made up of fake accounts – that equates to 4.4 million out of her 16.2 million followers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the social media powerhouse that is the Kardashian family made up a few spots on the list.

Paris Hilton was the worst offender when it came to fakery amongst celebrity accounts.

Kourtney Kardashian was only just behind Paris, coming in with 28% fake followers, equating to roughly 39 million fakes. Kris and Kylie Jenner, as well as Khloe Kardashian, also featured in the top 10 worst offenders – floating around the 27% fake follower mark. In total, TechRobot estimate that the Kardashian clan have over 276 million fake followers combined.

Other big Instagram accounts found to have a high number of fake followers was Cristiano Ronaldo, Donald Trump, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

Interestingly, TechRobot also found that brands weren’t immune to misleading follower counts. Nike was found to have an alarmingly high fake follower rate –  27.5% – equating to just over 46 million accounts. Victoria’s Secret (28.5%/19.3M), Lamborghini (23.1%/7M), and Starbucks (22.2%/4M) also made up the top 10.

So, what’s being done?

Instagram, and other social media platforms, are working hard behind the scenes to address the issue of bots and fake followers but they’re fighting an uphill battle. Put simply, social media firms are struggling to remove fake accounts faster than they’re being created. Last August, Instagram issued a statement introducing “new authenticity measures…[including] asking people to confirm who’s behind an account when we see a pattern of potential inauthentic behavior.”

The statement went on to say that they are aiming to target accounts “potentially engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior, or when we see the majority of someone’s followers are in a different country to their location, or if we find signs of automation, such as bot accounts for example.”

If accounts failed to comply with Instagram’s requests to confirm their identity, “[they] may receive reduced distribution, or the account may be disabled” the statement concluded.

Unfortunately, the latest audit by TechRobot shows that Instagram’s measures are not being particularly effective. Twitter also struggles despite removing between 6 and 7.5 million fake accounts per week, according to Fast Company. That being said, through community policing the issue is being contained. With users and brands becoming more and more aware of the issues, and follower audit tools springing up like HypeAuditor or Modash, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get away with fakery.

Whilst the problem of fake followers will probably never go away completely, it is being tackled, just be aware that when it comes to your favourite influencer’s follower numbers – it may not all be as it seems.

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