By TJ Kiely

September 18th, 2017

From gold bars to used underwear, pretty much anything is available for purchase from a vending machine nowadays – including Instagram ‘likes’ and followers.

Recently a vending machine offering people the chance to purchase 100 Instagram ‘likes’ for 50 Russian rubles ($.89) or 100 Instagram followers for 100 Russian rubles ($1.77) began popping up all over Russia.

Although the use of a vending machine is a novel promotional tactic, companies have been selling fake ‘likes’ and followers online for several years.

So if you are looking to give your next selfie an extra boost, Buzzoid, a website selling fake followers and ‘likes’ on Instagram, will happily sell you 100 ‘likes’ for $2.97, or 10,000 ‘likes’ for $69.99 – which is quite expensive compared to the offer available from the vending machine.

And there isn’t only a market for fake ‘likes’ and followers on Instagram, there are websites dedicated to providing your ego a boost on every type of social media platform imaginable. For example, if you want to grow your LinkedIn network, there is BuyLinkedInFollowers.com. 

And even though the ‘likes’ and followers sold through these services are fake, the people that actually generate them are very real.

What is a “click farm”?
Click farms hire low-paid workers to manually log into social media platforms using the login credentials for a non-existent user and then follow or ‘like’ the pages and profiles of paying clients. By using real people, rather than bots, the click farms make it harder for Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to detect the deception. Due to the manual nature of the work, this process can take several days.

For mobile platforms, such as WeChat, which require users to register their individual SIM card number when registering for the site, workers at click farms are forced to manually rotate out the SIM cards in cellphones in order to deceive the system. Therefore, these type of click farms require access to a lot of phones – and A LOT of SIM cards.

This fact was made clear when 347,200 SIM cards and 476 cellphones were seized from a click farm in Thailand.

The hidden cost of click farms
The duo operating the click farm above earned between $2,950-$4,400 per month creating ‘likes’ and views on WeChat. But why should you care? The service seems pretty harmless, right? Well, the thousands of dollars that they earned producing fake ‘likes’ could actually inflate the price your brand pays to advertise on certain websites.

The price of an advertisement on a website is typically based on the amount of traffic or clicks that the website drives on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. So, if a click farm generates a few thousand extra page views or clicks on an advertisement on a particular website, the bogus traffic could end up driving up the price that you pay to place an ad on the website. This illegal practice is known as click fraud.

And not only do advertisers need to be wary of fake clicks, ‘likes’ and followers online, but now they must also be cautious of fake influencers.

Fake influencers earning real cash
The ease with which individuals can purchase fake ‘likes’ and followers has produced a number of fake influencers on platforms such as Instagram.

After almost selecting a phony influencer for a client’s influencer marketing campaign, Evan Asano, the founder of Mediakix, a dedicated influencer marketing agency, decided to take a stand against the practice. Asano created two fake influencers, @wanderinggirl and @calibeachgirl310, using free stock photos. His team then began purchasing followers and engagement to create the perception of a real influencer. In a matter of weeks, the phony accounts had received a series of deals and products from brands eager to work with the non-existent influencers worth a combined $500.

Good times ahead ✈️

A post shared by Alexa Rae (@calibeachgirl310) on

With brands spending an estimated $1 billion on influencer marketing in 2017, these fictitious influencers pose a real threat to brands eager to connect with influencers.

How to spot a fake influencer
Detecting this type of deception can be difficult for both marketers and bots, but there are a few steps you can take to verify the authenticity of a profile.

  1. Check for spikes in an influencer’s follower count. Large spikes or periods of stagnation may suggest that the profile in question purchased fake followers.
  2. Examine an influencer’s Like Follower Ratio (Number of likes + comments / Number of followers x 100 = Like Follower Ratio). A high level of engagement demonstrates the trust that an influencer’s community has in the influencer as well as the amount of influence that an influencer has over their community.
  3. Read the comments on an influencer’s posts. Genuine comments should reference the related content, whereas fake comments are usually either generic or irrelevant.
  4. Review the profiles of commenters. If most of the commenters do not have followers or posts themselves, then there is a high likelihood that the profiles are bogus.
  5. Search for an influencer’s social media profiles on other channels. Usually, influencers leverage multiple several social media platforms to provide their community with different types of content. If an influencer in question only has a single profile, it could be a sign that the user is not actually an influencer.

Auditing fake profiles
Well aware of the issues that click farms and fictitious influencers create for genuine users, social networking platforms have begun building an army of bots and complex algorithms dedicated to identifying fictitious users and/or engagement. There are also several external services and algorithm-based detection platforms that are able to evaluate the authenticity of an influencer available to marketers.

Since the services provided by click farms violate the terms of services of most social media platforms, companies frequently remove fake users from the site. Facebook recently deleted tens of thousands of fake profiles and YouTube attracted attention when it deleted as many as 2 billion fake views from a branded channel that inflated video views.

Doug Madey, a LinkedIn spokesman, condemned the practice when he said that buying connections “dilutes the member experience” and can lead to account closures. Madey’s warning should be taken seriously by brands and users contemplating buying followers or engagement.

Why you shouldn’t buy followers
There are several risks involved in buying ‘likes’ and followers, such as:

  1. Buying fake ‘likes’ or followers puts your brand’s reputation at risk. If it is discovered that you purchased followers, not only will your brand suffer from the humiliation of the scandal but you could also isolate your genuine followers. 
  2. Followers that have been purchased are probably not interested in your business – and likely want nothing to do with your content. Conversely, your genuine followers have an interest in your brand and the content that you share. This is an important distinction because platforms like Facebook use metrics such as engagement rate to determine whether or not to feature your content in followers newsfeeds. 
  3. When advertising to your audience, you could be wasting money advertising to followers that don’t care about your brand or don’t even exist. 
  4. Buying followers or engagement violates the terms of service at most social media platforms, which means you risk being banned from a social media platform altogether. Then you lose the option to engage anyone, real or fake. 

So although you might be pondering: How can I get more Instagram followers? How can I get more views on YouTube? Or, how can I get Twitter followers? Remember to grow your audience the right way. A small community of engaged followers will bring your brand more value than a large number of fake followers.

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