Knowing how to spot fake followers is an important skill set for anyone working online. Here are seven ways to spot fake followers and fake engagement.
Social media influencers who hack the system with fake followers and fake engagement are increasingly being called out. The New York Times ran an exhaustively-researched report recently exposing Devumi, a US company which has in the past sold followers to personalities such as British Bake Off baker Paul Hollywood; Olympic rower, James Cracknell and Twitter board member Martha Lane Fox.
The NYT feature story is just the latest in an increasingly vocal media who are calling out people who want to appear more popular or exert influence online by cheating the system. Digiday wrote about the issue in August 2017 and again in November. The Drum has covered how cosmetic brand, Sephora, handles fake influencers in December 2017.
The phenomenon of creating the impression of popularity through the purchase of followers is as old as the social platforms themselves, though. Twitter Audit launched six years ago in 2012 to expose Twitter fraud - more on this tool and others later.
How to spot fake followers and fake engagement
Here I offer six steps to spot fake followers and fake engagement on social media.
#1 Spikes in follower numbers
Building social media follower counts organically is incremental. Your audience size tends to grow as other social media users discover the content you're publishing, sharing and commenting on. Natural follower count rises smoothly, it's a consistent growth.
You'd expect to see someone who's paid for fake followers and/or faked engagement to receive sudden spikes in follower counts as they buy new followers.
How can you spot these sudden upticks? You can turn to services to do the heavy lifting with this. Run the social media account through a service like Socialblade. Enter the username of the profile you want to check. Select the social media platform. From there you can monitor follower growth on a daily basis and examine a chart tracking changes across the last month.
I use Socialblade. I like its layout and multiplatform functionality. It is, by no means, the only application for checking the follower 'health' of a social media account.
StatusPeople was formed in 2011. Its Fakers App was launched the following year in July 2012. The app claims to be the first social media tool in the world to inform people how many fake and spam followers they had.
Twitter Audit has been exposing Twitter fraud since 2012. Each audit takes a sample of up to 5,000 Twitter followers for a user and calculates a score for each follower.
This score is based on number of tweets, date of the last tweet, and ratio of followers to friends. The system uses these scores to determine whether any given user is real or fake.
Twitter Audit acknowledges, this scoring method is not perfect but it is a good way to tell if someone with lots of followers is likely to have increased their follower count by inorganic, fraudulent, or dishonest means.
Botometer (formerly BotOrNot) is similar to Twitter Audit. It checks the activity of a Twitter account and gives it a score based on how likely the account is to be a bot. Higher scores are more bot-like.
Auditor for Instagram
For Instagram accounts consider using using Auditor for Instagram. It's an AI-powered tool that helps marketers check influencers' Instagram accounts for fake followers and likes.
The tool uses machine learning to find behaviour patterns that correspond with real people vs automated bots or sporadic usage.
#2 Quality of follower
Click through to a handful for followers on the account. Do they have fully-completed bios? Do they have lots of followers? Are they posting lots of content?
Initially chuffed to be getting several retweets for one of my stories I clicked through to one of the sharers to thank them. The account for Ella Sibiski was not fully completed. There was no header image, no bio. She had a following of just 30 and had only tweeted 35 times. All of these tweets were retweets.
Ella, I suspect you can not provide the type of social proof I was hoping for with your retweet - but thanks anyway!
#3 Low engagement levels
The average engagement on Twitter is 0.7%. According to CampaignDeus, the leader in independent reporting on influencer campaign performance [to which I am a strategic advisor], the average engagement rate on Instagram is 3.0% for sponsored content and 3.4% for organic content. On YouTube engagement rates are 0.6% for sponsored content and 0.8% for organic content.
Do the engagement rates fall inside or outside these parameters when checking profile accounts on social media?
#4 High engagement levels
The profile you're analysing has earned high rates of engagement. Good news right? Sadly, not necessarily. Not all comments, likes and shares are created equal.
Check whether the comments are meaningful, specific to the particular post or generic comments like: "Cool," or "love it". This might suggest one of two things: either the person's follower base is comprised of limited-vocab teens or they're part of an comment collusion via an Instapod or bot.
#5 Follower and Following numbers in parity
Does the social media account enjoy artificially inflated: follow-back followers?
Whilst not fake followers in the truest sense, the follow-back followers game social media platforms by artificially inflating their follower numbers using the follow-back technique.
People turn to automation tools, or bots, to boost their Instagram followings explains Evan LePage in an article for Hootsuite, the social media scheduling company.
LePage added over 700 Instagram followers in six days by trialling Instagram automation leading providers Instagress and Instamacro.
He achieved this vacuous following by automating the commenting functionality and associating different stock phrase comments with hashtags. Plus by automating following based on targeted hashtag in the hope the Instagram user would follow back.
If a Twitter account has 15,000 followers but is following 13,754 other accounts chances are the person behind the account is using the follow for follow tactic.
This might be done manually or via signing up for a service as LePage did as an experiment.
What's the problem with this? The influence probably isn't real. As the audience is built as a way of saying thanks for following them back.
What happens if when the person followed doesn't follow back? After 24 hours or so they tend to be unfollowed. These people track who's not following them back through services such as Commun.it .
#6 Content being published
How much content is the account publishing to the social media platform? In the example above Ella Sibiski had only posted 30 tweets. Most of which were retweets.
There's a potential red flag if the account has only posted a several occasions, yet the amount of engagement received on these posts plus the number of followers is high. Of course common sense must enter here. The influencer may be more prevalent on another platform or IRL. High follower counts might have crossed from other platforms. Though usually influencers will cross-post to each of their social media accounts when they publish new content.
#7 Followers in surprising countries
Check the location of followers. If the influencer is best known in, say the UK, it might be surprising to find a sizeable following in more far-afield countries.
A big following from people in countries sometimes associated with fake farms like India and Latvia might be a red flat to the authenticity of their reach.
Brilliant article on the current hot topic of fake social #influence. I would add https://t.co/9Oi4CuqZBn as a handy tool to spot fake Twitter ppl and also one tip of looking for big acc's who have followers from strange countries (Latvia, India etc). Probs fake. #social #pr https://t.co/m37vUn8ClH— Andy Barr (@10Yetis) February 26, 2018
A word on perspective
In an article I wrote last year titled Influencer marketing is gaming itself to death. Here’s how to stop it I remarked that it’s all-too-easy to dismiss influencer marketing because of a few less-than-ethical influencers and marketers.
Exploiting ‘the system’ is not unique to influencer marketing. There will always be those who work at the edges of acceptability in any walk-of-life.
Take accountancy - more specifically tax planning - a profession seemingly as far-removed from influencer marketing as is possible.
Tax evasion is illegal whilst tax avoidance is legally exploiting the tax system to reduce current or future tax liabilities by means not intended by parliament. Legal - though ethically questionable.
Tolley’s Yellow Tax Handbook - the bible for UK accountants, runs to a 15,500 pages over six volumes. It explains the intricacies of the UK tax system. Each new edition gets longer as parliament seeks to close loopholes and remove wriggle-room of interpretation. Whilst those practicing in the hinterland of acceptability seek to hack the system - hunting out and exploiting new loopholes.