Everyone is talking about the New York Times’ investigation into social media’s fake followers black market. Follower fraud is a huge issue in the social media market and its reach extends far beyond Twitter bots. In this blog post, we’ll discuss what the turmoil was all about, which parties might need to take more responsibility and why the findings highlight the importance of using data as the basis for influencer marketing.
Last weekend the New York Times published an article about social media’s black market. Entitled “The Follower Factory,” the investigation revealed that many celebrities, politicians, athletes and pundits purchased fake followers on Twitter. In their investigation, nyt.com focuses much of its attention on a company called Devumi.
According to the article, the company owns 3.5 million automated accounts and has sold them to celebrities, such as John Leguizamo and Kathy Ireland. While some of the bots are fictional, others come from stolen identities.
The issue addressed in this investigation is not new– it has long been an open secret that fake followers and fake engagement can be bought on social media’s black market. Nevertheless, the article draws attention to the need for consequences and raises awareness of the economic, ethical and political dimensions of the issue. The political aspects can be particularly troubling, as in a recent incident in which a Russian follow bot was linked to Twitter accounts promoting the hashtag #releasethememo.
Professionalism and knowledge are clearly needed in approaching the problem of follower factories.
WHO NEEDS TO STEP UP (OR OUT)?
As the location of Devumi initially appeared to be in NYC according to its website (this was later found to not be the case), New York State attorney general Eric. T. Schneiderman reacted to the NYT report with a tweet announcing an investigation into the company:
Eric Schneiderman’s reaction on Twitter regarding NYT’s investigation
THIRD-PARTY SERVICES (THE BLACK MARKET-EERS)
Clearly, Devumi is taking much of the heat in the aftermath of the investigation even though there are many similar businesses offering the same services for Twitter and other social media platforms. Unfortunately, the black market is easy to find, because buying, selling and creating fake followers still falls into a legal gray zone (the only exception is impersonation, which is illegal). So, buying fake followers is technically not illegal.
From this perspective, companies like Devumi are simply filling the market niche created by social media influencers’ demand for popularity.
CELEBRITIES AND INFLUENCERS WHO BUY FOLLOWERS
The social media influencers who bought the fake followers seem to have different opinions on this subject. Some of them seem to be ashamed of what they did, while others consider it irrelevant, stating that everyone in the business buys fake followers. Since many accounts use fake followers, you need to check the relevant data to determine whether or not a social media account has fake followers or fake engagement.
Tweet by Dan LaMorte
SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS
The social media platforms affected by social media’s black market have attempted to combat the influence of follower factories in different ways. Twitter has done very little to verify the authenticity of an account as algorithms and automated tweets are the easiest things to do on Twitter.
You can buy followers for anybody. I could go buy a million followers for you in the next 10 minutes. And you would get them and have no control over it. So one issue for Twitter is they can’t always be sure who made the purchase. (“Follower Factory” author Nick Confessore on “Marketplace”)
Even though the company prohibits buying or selling inauthentic interactions such as retweets or likes on their platform and threatens to delete any account who does not obey these regulations, Twitter has dismissed the issue in the past. After the release of the investigation, the company appeared to be surprised and concerned, but many have pointed out that addressing the issue is not in Twitter’s best financial interests.
Twitter’s reaction to NYT’s investigation
Compared to its competitors such as Facebook and Instagram, Twitter has the fewest monthly active users and, according to a study conducted in 2017, up to 15% of Twitter accounts are bots — that’s around 48 million “users”. Deleting bots would have widened the gap between Facebook’s active users and Twitter users even further, which would likely have resulted in falling stock prices. So, it might have been in the company’s interest for Twitter to take serious action against the bots. Will that be the company’s downfall now? At the very least, Twitter users could face the #twitterpurge now.
INSTAGRAM’S 2016 PURGE
Unlike Twitter, Instagram crawled its platform for bots a while ago, in the Instagram purge of September 2016. As far as we know, the mass deletion was not a reaction to any reports of misconduct, at least not on the scale of the NYT investigation, meaning that Instagram was not necessarily forced to take action. Many accounts lost thousands of followers they had bought online prior to the purge (see the detail in the blue box below).
Instagram also goes after third-party services that sell automated accounts or likes on Instagram. For example, Instagress or MassPlanner had to shut down their service in April 2017.
Even though Instagram seems to be somewhat more active in fighting fraud, marketers should not rely on these actions. The NYT investigation may serve as a wake-up call for marketers, encouraging them to take steps toward greater professionalism in influencer marketing.
A lot of influencers look forward to a professionalization of the market as many of them feel that the prevalence of fake accounts creates an unfair competition that does not reward quality. Therefore, many influencers greeted the NYT investigation as a welcome exposure of an unfair system.
Screenshot of an Instagram Story shared by @luisalion
KNOWLEDGE AND DATA NEEDED
The NYT report highlights how important solid data is in the social media market. For marketers, knowledge of how to determine authenticity is essential to navigating the social media landscape. The fact that fake audiences and fake engagement are inauthentic doesn’t keep every celebrity, company, and influencer from taking part in these dubious interactions. Clearly, follower fraud can ruin your marketing strategy if you’re working with influencers.
If you want to be sure whether the influencer or celebrity you want to work with is authentic or not you need to ask yourself a few quantitative questions:
- What is the quality of the audience of the influencer?
- Who are the followers of this influencer?
- How is the influencer’s growth rate?
- Is the growth rate stagnating or negative?
DATA-DRIVEN ANALYSES #FTW
In order to answer the questions above, marketers need to take a look at most relevant metrics and analyze the people they want to work with quantitatively. The NYT released a list of celebrities who had bought fake followers through Devumi. We analyzed some of the Instagram accounts by the celebrities and politicians named to see whether their behavior on Instagram might be suspicious as well.
Lynne Patton, an American event planner who was designated in June 2017 by President Donald Trump to head Region II of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, had an unsteady follower growth – the grey line in the figure below – at the beginning of 2017, constantly gaining and losing followers on Instagram. These growth patterns can be an indicator of fake followers.
Example of the unsteady growth rate @Lynne Patton
Additionally, we analyzed Katie Lowes’ Instagram channel. The American actress is best known for her role as Quinn Perkins in the ABC series Scandal. Analyzing her account we found that her audience can’t be graded better than a D-, and that 71% of Instagram influencer accounts perform better than hers. InfluencerDB’s Audience Quality Grade is one indicator of suspicious followers, which could mean that some of her followers are fake.
Example of Audience Quality Grade @Katie Lowes
After the Times published this investigation, it was easy for many to point their fingers at Twitter or the third-party services. But combating follower fraud requires taking on the extensive social media black market, not just punishing single companies.
These cases serve as a lesson about the process of influencer marketing, and the need for data-driven decision-making in the field. They show social media users and politicians that we need accountability on our social media platforms, and it shows marketers that now, more than ever, data must be a part of how they approach influencer partnerships.