Fake followers are predicted to cost advertisers $1.3 billion this year. Influencer fraud undermines one of the core strengths of influencer marketing as a whole — that brands can use it to tap into authentic, engaged audiences for their campaigns. Fraud is an industry issue which needs to be tackled head-on. We’ve seen Instagram making changes in a bid to combat #InstaFraud when they removed any inauthentic engagements from accounts that have used services to boost their popularity. The platform regularly removes many accounts that violate its terms and conditions but a lot of one-off activity goes unchecked.
An element of fraud we want to highlight is bot followers. At TAKUMI we think about bot followers in three distinct categories; bought (by the influencer or bought for someone else — all you need to provide is the Instagram handle), inflated through exchange schemes like pods and bots that just sit there through no voluntary action from the influencer. It can be difficult to distinguish between these three categories. This means detective work is needed for brands that are working with influencers. The industry is growing at a fast pace and bots are always advancing, making them difficult to spot.
Here’s our guide to help you identify bot followers and how to deep clean your Instagram profile.
(N.B. Screenshots featured are real examples of the recent bot spam we received on the TAKUMI Instagram account.)
Who is a bot?
Blank Profiles — One of the most obvious bot account types and how most people would imagine a bot account to appear. These profiles do not feature any content, bio information or a profile photo and have a username usually consisting of random letters and numbers.
The ‘Mass followers’
These accounts go to the effort of using a profile picture and sometimes will include a post or two with very little engagement if not nil. They are still very obvious due to the mass amount of accounts they are following (usually in their 1000’s) compared to little followers who are usually bot accounts themselves. Remember the maximum accounts that Instagram allows you to follow is 7,500.
‘The Lazy Bots’
These accounts follow the same patterns as the mass followers but have their account on private mode so you cannot view the content or (lack of) authentic engagements on their profile.
Bot services may seem like a quick way to inflate a following, however little does the user know this is a perfect opportunity for the bot service to hack and steal the profile.
The bot service will ask a user to login to Instagram via a 3rd party Instagram login if they want to use their service. The service then steals the login and turns the account into a pawn as part of the bot farm. They put the account into an algorithm and uses the account to follow and engage with other bots and other users who have paid for the service. This is why the ‘hacked’ profiles may seem legitimate as these were all live accounts from real people.
Both ‘The Basics’ and ‘The Lazy Bots’ are stereotypically what you would think a bot account is however they are becoming more advanced and harder to spot. As Influencer marketing is growing at a rapid rate, marketers and influencers alike are becoming increasingly more informed as to what inorganic growth looks like causing bot farms to expand on their offerings. Whereas in the past users could purely buy to increase their following numbers, they can now buy packages which offer more “premium” accounts such as ‘The Hacked’ profiles, that at a first glance mimic a legitimate profile.
Are these accounts hard to spot? At first glance yes however, there are a few tell-tale signs to look out for. The majority of these accounts will follow the basic pattern of following thousands of accounts with minimal followers, however depending on what the opted “package” from the customer is, more genuine looking bot accounts with a healthy following:follower ratio will be included in the following spam making it harder to spot. So, what are the more discreet signs you should be looking for?
Engagement is a massive sign for these accounts. At first glance, it may appear that they have a relatively active feed however take a look at the like numbers and comments. An account with 3000 followers but only 2 likes per post and 0 comments show the lack of social interaction.
Bot account bios are constructed in a very generalised and often repetitive manner. These include hashtagging, generalised hobbies such as #football and #cooking, a motivational quote, location tagging, star signs and also tagging a fellow bot account as someone special to that user. The similarly worded bios are of exactly 99 characters.
Fake Social Media Links — The most common you will see are for Facebook profiles; which typically link you back to a fake profile, blog/website links which are broken or Youtube channels which are either inactive or show no activity.
Stolen content. A major red flag that can be difficult to pick up on at first glance and what we deem as the most serious is content theft. Some of these fake accounts, in an attempt to seem legitimate, do not produce their own content and will use personal information from real people without their knowledge (usually dated back so it’s not as obvious).
You might also find the same stock image show up a few times in a row, a clue that there was no real person behind the profile.
Lastly, these accounts usually use lower quality images with filters (a lot of the dog Snapchat filter) which can make it tricky to do a reverse google image on.
Highlights are a great way for a typical Instagram user to showcase their best stories however for a bot, this is a perfect way to make their profile look more legitimate. From our experience, the bots often call them ‘Destaques’ which is Portuguese for ‘highlight’ (Brazil is commonly where the bot farms are located and local language is Portuguese.) Within these highlights, you will see stolen content including screen grabs from legitimate Instagram accounts. The highlights reel will also appear as though the user has tagged a friend in their highlight however will not link through to that person’s profile.
On top of highlights, bots now also post stories (they’re a sociable bunch). When glancing through a user’s following, it is widely assumed that the accounts with the purple/pink ring around the profile are active users and this makes a great disguise for a bot because why check a profile which is clearly active? Often, the bots will just be posting blank screens and screenshots from their own profiles just so they constantly have a story post live.
Business Accounts — A typical assumption is that bots take the form of “human” accounts however they also mimic businesses. These are very easy to spot using all of the above tips as they follow similar traits such a broken bio links, fake highlights and stolen content.
Checklist: Tell-tale signs of a bot
- Repetitive bio info: i.e. hashtagging, generalised hobbies, a motivational quote, location tagging, star signs, bible quotes, Whatsapp number, tagging a fellow bot account as someone special to that user, tagging their account type
- No profile pic
- Snapchat filter images for grid images
- No posts or a very low number of posts
- Posts with repetitive poses posted frequently
- Private accounts
- Highlights reel with reposts of grid images or blank images
- Language in the bios
- The rate at which they hit “like” and “follow”
- Country of origin (An influencer with a high number of followers from Turkey, Brazil and China, for instance, fake followers and bot farms come from these countries.)
What should you do if your account is spammed by bots?
There is no short-cut to clean your Instagram account, so we recommend first putting your Instagram account onto private. Depending on how long it has taken you to notice and the number of bots who followed, this will stop them temporarily whilst you begin the cleanup.
Putting your account on private will only hinder the bots temporarily whilst you get the situation under control. But as soon as you put your account on public, the bots could start again. Bots do not tend to follow private accounts as it is easier to spot, especially if the bots were not bought by that user.
From there, you would need to manually go through the gained followers and look out for the signs we’ve flagged. When you block an account, we also recommend reporting it for spam, this helps Instagram to clear up those pesky bots.
It’s important that brands using influencer marketing should invest in their own vetting programs to ensure their influencers are legitimate. Though it requires time and labour, it’s important that this is carried out to understand what the true audience of an influencer entails.
At TAKUMI, we champion authenticity and are committed to brand safety to take serious action against fraud. Our high standards mean that only 7% of influencer applications make it through our 11-step vetting process using a combination of both software tools and human insight to ensure legitimacy throughout. The profiles are then continually monitored by our team of Community Managers. In addition, we work with partners for fraud prevention to gather Instagram account performance metrics as further third-party verification.
Influencer marketing is a great opportunity for content creators to earn money and in some cases, a living, but with so much at stake, there are always going to be those that fake their way into the fold. The more we can clean it up and move away from anybody gaming the system, the better it will be for the industry. It’s always going to be an ongoing battle, but it’s by no means futile.