Influencer fraud vigilantes: 28 top Instagram influencers have been called out over #instafraud but is vigilantism the best approach to clean up the industry?
Influencer fraud is hurting brands. The cost of influencer fraud is $500m a year according to influencerDB, an influencer search engine.
Influencer fraud is hurting honest Influencers, too. Many creators who have grown their communities organically complain they're missing out on brand collaborations. They argue work goes instead to those with faked/ bought/ or gamed reach and engagement metrics.
Now someone, or some people, are setting out to rid the industry of influencer fraud. Calling themselves the Influencer Squad the outfit is publicly calling out Influencers who they say have committed influencer fraud.
The group has penned an 8,500-word article condemning UK-based influencers who undertake #Instafraud.
Titled: ‘2 Year Investigation Into The Fake Influencers In the UK: 2016–2018 — PART I — #opInstaFake’ the article focuses on Instagrammers who have used follow/unfollow tactics over prolonged periods - and at an industrial scale in some instances.
The Influencer Squad is also calling out brands who have repeatedly collaborated with these influencers.
Originally posted on 05 February to Medium, the online publishing platform, the exposé has been exhaustively researched. It contains over 50 screen grabs from Instagram posts and Social Blade analytics to illustrate how they believe these influencers have cheated the system.
In total the exposé names and shames 28 UK-based Instagram influencers. It also gives a list of seven household brands who have regularly worked with these influencers on commercial collaborations.
A collective digital cheer was sounded by many honest brokers within the influencer marketing fraternity (me included) as we waded through the 37-minute read.
The post, however, was removed from the web in the early afternoon of 06 February. This might have been due to fear of legal action against its authors.
Not everyone was impressed by the article. One Instagram influencer took to Twitter yesterday to express how she was ‘mortified’ to have been included on the list.
“It has been brought to my attention that I’ve been featured among a ‘fake/cheaters’ list for influencers. I am absolutely MORTIFIED to be featured on this list as I can wholeheartedly say I have never ‘cheated’ or used bots/automated programmes EVER during my time on Instagram.
The screenshots shown are of a period between July and September 2016, when I had just connected my blog up to IG and I was tailoring my feed away from following celebrities (and using it for personal use) and more to following bloggers and those who inspired me blog wise.
As the screenshots show, the numbers alternate between me following 680 and 770 (approx) people at any one time. It’s not fluctuating in hundreds (or thousands). We are talking about unfollowing 10 on one day and following 15 a couple of days later.
I’ve never quite had to analyse it in this much depth and can’t believe I’m having to defend myself but I am so upset as I am an honest person who has worked hard to build my small following. In the last year, I have grown as a result of a few kind mentions from larger influencers.”
Doth the influencer protest too much? Or is all of the analysis water-tight? And there’s the rub. Whilst, no doubt, honourable in its intentions the Influencer Squad has set itself up as judge and jury. It is relying on a disgruntled online community to meter out retribution. They have become influencer fraud vigilantes - members of a self-appointed group of citizens who have undertaken enforcement within their communications’ discipline without authority because they deem the legal agencies to be inadequate.
No regulatory system is perfect. The Advertising Standards Authority or the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK or the Federal Trade Commission in the United States will always be playing catch-up within our industry. It is the inevitability of budget constraints, challenges of knowledge acquisition and having to wait until a complaint is lodged before it can be investigated and a precedent set. But a regulatory system allows you to speak in your own defence and to present evidence. Vigilantes rarely do so. So is the case with the anonymous Influencer Squad.
Who knows whether the influencer who says she is mortified to be included on this list is genuine? The Influencer Squad analysis looks solid. "The data is pretty accurate over a long period of time" one senior influencer marketer told me via Twitter Direct Message continuing "so out of the names on the list, I’d debate 2 or 3 at the most."
Having a question mark over two or three is to be unsure about 10% of those publicly called out. Shouldn't there be a presumption of innocence over being found guilty by public opinion?
"You can buy likes, comments and other engagements just as easily as you can followers, as well as using bots to engage for you," comments the Influencer Squad. "Just like a follower number, at a glance this can look real, but if you go into the comments or likes and take a look, it’s anything but that."
What happens if an unscrupulous influencer wants to ‘nobble’ a rival, honest influencer? A small, but significant (and growing) number of influencers who feel they’re missing out to influencer fraudsters are buying fake followers and fake engagement for rivals’ Instagram handles. It's a temptation to sabotage honest rivals and get them blacklisted or called out. It’s easy to do. Companies such as Instaboost don’t require you to verify ownership of an account to buy fake followers and engagement on its behalf.
What if an influencer bought some followers and engagement when they were starting out but haven’t indulged in the murky practice in years? Is there no hope of redemption for this influencer?
Instagram may have even condoned the practice of buying followers in the beginning. "During Instagram’s early years the social media platform start-up appeared to be relaxed about third-party tools swelling follower numbers for users, says influence strategist, Dudley Nevill-Spencer. Through this lens you could argue that Instagram users bought fake following in good faith during this time. Should they be punished now?
The authors of this analysis take an Old Testament approach towards influencer fraud. Under the subsection: 'I Cheat/Have Cheated & Want To Change My Ways — What Should I Do? the authors suggest starting again from scratch if you've ever cheated the system'.
"We recommend deleting your account and starting again, back to zero. If you have genuine influence, it will not take long to get followers back ORGANICALLY ", they reason.
The whiff of a scandal often lasts longer than the deletion and rebuilding of a community. We have elephantine memories when it suits our cause. Those who can't remember the past sometimes become offence archaeologists - digging into past posts and video until they find something they don't care for regardless of the evolution of that person and his atonement made for those former actions.
Influencer fraud is wrong. It is expensive. It tarnishes the reputation of our fledgling industry. It is ethically unsound. It is also a criminal act. Last year I spoke with representatives from the CMA, National Trading Standards, the Chartered Trading Standard Institute and Action Fraud.
A lead officer for fair trading at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute had this to say:
“If a social media influencer buys likes, or other support, with the intention of misleading an organisation into paying him to promote a product, he could be breaching the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008, which is a criminal offence … “Acting in this way could also potentially be considered to be fraud, if the influencer is deliberately giving false information in order to defraud a business into paying him to promote a product.”
I remain sanguine about influencer fraud. It is a contrarian point of view, but I believe that as sunlight is the best disinfectant so influencer fraud challenges brands to work harder. We must strive for measurement beyond reach and engagement towards intent metrics and the ultimate metric of impact.
It is the commercial imperative to see a quantifiable return on investment as much as a moral indignation that will force a maturation of influencer marketing. This needs accurate data married to contextual intelligence of the marketer to effectively screen potential influencers to represent their brand. Effective vetting means careful influencer fraud checks.
Given the heightened emotions surrounding influencer fraud it is understandable that some wish to call out wrong-doers. I get queasy about influencer fraud vigilantes though. They are self-appointed. They deny a right to reply and they run the risk (regardless of how small) of calling out honest influencers in error.
Scott Guthrie is an influencer marketing strategist, event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.