BENGALURU: While scrolling through social media, it’s hard not to feel a pang of envy seeing influencers travel to exotic locales, eat at the fanciest of restaurants, dress in designer-wear or receive goodies from the biggest brands. ‘I want to do this too’, is a thought that often comes to mind, without considering the years of hard work put in to generate engaging content.
In some cases, the want for the finer things in life leads people who want to become influencers to take shortcuts. The fact is, you don’t need to make more friends to get more followers; all you need is a credit card, and anywhere between Rs 20 - Rs150 can get you up to a 1,000 followers in 2018.
An account on Instagram – called Diet Influencer – has been calling out bloggers who purchase followers. Using simple algorithms, it is possible to filter those who have bought followers, from those profiles that have organically grown.
Aditya Narayanan, director of Cryptic Intel, which works in the digital branding and social media space, said that he has been working with bloggers since 2013. “Blogging started as a platform for passionate people to post things that matter to them. People started to follow these individuals to, for example, find out which restaurants to visit, which new place to explore, etc. After gaining popularity, it was natural for these bloggers to want to monetise their content, and they started charging for their posts.
Young people, attracted to the idea of earning money from eating a meal and writing about it, began creating blogging profiles, but soon realise that generating engaging content is not easy. So they resort to third-parties, who offer a thousand followers, views and likes across platforms, for as cheap as one dollar. The problem, however, is that these followers are fake.
How it works
On condition of anonymity, Diet Influencer said, “It’s become so common to buy followers only because of how cheap it is. In 2014, when the trend of buying followers started, it was costly. So, only celebrities or established bloggers would do it. In 2014, 1,000 followers cost Rs 700 - Rs1,000. Come 2018, it’s dirt cheap, depending on the quality of the follower accounts. You can even choose only female followers, Indian followers or even followers from a specific country. One can buy followers, likes, views, comments, saves, reach, impressions and even the blue tick. These are hacked accounts from all over the world. And by running a code on Instagram, the sellers can use thousands of such accounts simultaneously.”
Explaining how they detect who has bought followers, Diet Influencer said, “We use socialblade, which is a free tool that shows daily changes in followers, following and posts. We track accounts for over two months and then check for big spikes of followers added and big drops in followers. Any account that buys big, loses big too. So if someone has amazing content, they will keep getting daily followers between 100-600. So when we see a 5,000, 8,000 or 10,000 spike, we know something’s fishy. We then go through the followers list to check who these followers are. If we see Turkish, Chinese, Indonesian profiles, we know it’s fake. Same goes for the likes too.”
Narayanan added that often, it’s bots commenting on people’s posts. “Blogging is micro-geography based. Most followers have to be from one place, and that’s how bloggers approach clients. But when you buy followers, they include people from Africa, Europe, etc, but they have no relevance to what you’re posting about.
If a profile is organic, you’ll see engagement levels of 2-5 per cent, but those bloggers with, say 30,000 followers and zero likes and comments, have definitely bought followers.”
‘Can’t choose to be an influencer’
Ankita Kumar, a travel blogger, said you can’t ‘choose’ to be an influencer – you either are, or you’re not. “A fellow-blogger and I were wondering if there is a way to lay down some ground rules. But because it is a creative field, it’s hard to find a way. It is so frustrating for me to see people buying followers when I’ve spent years generating content. Now, I’m just going to work on my content and forget the numbers.”
Nivedith Gajapthy, who goes by ‘Macro Traveller’ on social media, has been blogging for a decade, and was one of the profiles called out on Diet Influencer. He told City Express that he got a notification that his profile had been listed on the page. “My followers have been growing steadily.
In fact, I work with Instagram and Facebook directly, so I think this is just a way to gain eyeballs or defame us. As someone with a marketing background, I understand how ethics work in this field.”
Monster called number game
Akshay Khandelwal, owner of Shift in HSR Layout, pointed out that one way they keep the fakers out is by analysing the profile of the blogger and seeing if their engagement is low but followers are many. “Doing market research and speaking to people is one way to find out. Brands usually look at the number of followers – if you have 100k followers, you are considered big.
No one sees who is following you and what the engagement is. Personally, as a restaurant, I’m careful when inviting bloggers because the simple logic is that if I’m paying for something, ROI (return on investment) matters. If I pay 10k to a blogger, then I need to get back 3-4 per cent back. I’d rather go with a genuine blogger with 4,000 followers and good content, rather than someone with 50k followers,” he said.
Diet Influencer said that brands hire an agency to handle their campaigns. “These agencies charge a lot for bringing in accounts with 100k, 200k followers to please the brand. Even if they are fake, the agency won’t care because the agency’s quote to the brand is based on the number of Ks an influencer brings in. Brands won’t even know they are fake, because they trust the agency to do that check. Most agencies tell the influencers to buy more as well, so that both can make more money. Till the brands actually understand the social media game themselves, this nexus of agency and influencer will continue to milk the brand.”
Insta cracks down
Last month, Instagram announced that it will no longer allow “inauthentic likes, follows and comments from accounts that use third-party apps to boost their popularity.” That includes buying likes and followers, and paying for other engagement generated by apps that require a user’s Instagram login details in order to operate on their behalf. The social media giant said it “built machine learning tools” to help detect accounts growing artificially. They won’t be removing ‘likes’ or followers that accounts have already garnered, but prevent them in the future.