In today’s social media, followers have become currency with the most popular Instagrammers wielding a lot of power. It’s no surprise that many unscrupulous users have been tempted into buying their prominence rather than earning it. Fortunately, there are now quick and easy ways to spot those who are trying to cheat their way to social media success.
A few months ago, Trey Ratcliff released his book detailing how easy it is to purchase influence, hopefully prompting more brands to run a few checks before investing in social media accounts whose standing might not be what they seem. With the rise of bots and bought followers, knowing whose popularity on Instagram is real is becoming increasingly difficult and tools for checking on who is cheating are now incredibly important. Instagram is an infamously murky platform and when you consider that, according to a recent documentary, even Hollywood superstars appear to be buying followers, having an insight into the numbers can be highly useful. (If you want to skip the meat of how all of this works and find out how to check on someone for free, scroll down.)
Checking an Account: The Expensive Option
Services such as HypeAuditor do an excellent job, running detailed analytics on accounts, digging into their follower/following statistical history, and giving info not only on whether there’s been some sneaky buying, but insights into the geographic location, age and gender of a profile’s followers — and crucially, whether those fans engage with that person’s content. HypeAuditor gives an account an overall rating — an Audience Quality Score — which reflects the quality of the account’s followers, engagement (both from followers and from the account itself), and the authenticity of that account.
HypeAuditor kindly gave me some credit and I ran a few tests. Example One advertises his services in Los Angeles. A quick check with HypeAuditor suggests the possibility of some foul play. I reached out to ask if Example One had bought followers but I was blocked and received no response.
The profile gets an Audience Quality Score of just 35% which is HypeAuditor’s basic metric for giving an overview of the desirability of an account from a marketer’s point of view. This figure doesn’t necessarily give a clear idea of whether someone is cheating because of the various factors that it considers. If you have a lot of followers but don’t comment on other accounts or reply to those commenting on your posts, this will drag your score down significantly — @OfficialFstoppers scores a paltry 40% with the explanation: “Very low activity, no suspicious likes or comments. Low number of comments.” Fstoppers has not been buying followers but because it’s not a single person behaving like a human being, it doesn’t engage like a human being, added to which is that fact that its followers don’t necessarily have a huge amount to say. The HypeAuditor rating reflects this.
By contrast, user @UpThatRock receives an Audience Quality Score of 86% (“Highly engaged audience of real people”) which reflects organic growth, regular content, consistent engagement, and very natural activity, both from the account holder and users. She may only have 16,000 followers, but this user could be an incredibly effective means of marketing niche products to a niche audience (full disclosure: she’s also my wife).
To understand why Example One probably bought followers while Fstoppers has not, you have to dig into HypeAuditor’s data a little further. The report includes a graph that gives an overview of the user’s followers and this can be a bit of a giveaway:
HypeAuditor's graph allows you to hover your mouse and find specific data. On June 4, 2017, the account had 13,682 followers. Six days later, it had 33,319.
Of course, this user’s huge spike in followers could be attributed to being featured by a huge account or receiving some other type of intense publicity. The slow drop-off in followers can be a sign that Instagram is gradually killing off the dodgy accounts that made up the 30,000 people that suddenly thought that this photographer’s work is amazing.
Take a look at Example Two, an “internationally published fashion and wedding photographer” based in Florida and “sponsored by Polaroid.” Alarm bells would ring for many when viewing his profile because his posts typically receive fewer than 100 likes despite him having more than 26,000 followers. HypeAuditor gives him an overall score of 29% but again it’s the follower graph that is most revealing:
Example Three gained around a thousand followers overnight on at least seven occasions in 2017 and 2018, and saw an increase of more than 5,000 followers between February 6 and February 10 this year. You can draw your own conclusions.
It’s also worth having a glance at how many people that account is following as this can also reveal some unusual patterns. Consider Example Three, an account belonging to a photographer and retoucher who has 133,000 followers. Again, there are warning signs as post likes rarely break into three figures. As you’d expect, the graph shows some unusual activity:
The peaks and troughs of the followers graph are slightly odd, but there are signs from the following graph that demonstrate some mass follow/unfollow activity. Some automated systems try to gain followers by following other accounts for a short period of time and then unfollowing again in the hope that an unsuspecting user might follow back. HypeAuditor’s graphs can give some indication of whether this has been taking place.
HypeAuditor includes a ton of other information, such as making a judgment as to whether a user has engaged in comment pods. However, its services cost money and I certainly can’t justify spending $30 on trying to find out whether one user is playing dirty.
SocialBlade offers free reports and incorporates some graphs (click on "Historical Data" once you've done a report), though it doesn’t present the information with the same depth or clarity. You also have to figure out what each service is valuing in its assessment. HypeAuditor gave @OfficialFstoppers 40% but SocialBlade gives it a “total grade” of B. By contrast, @UpThatRock recorded 86% with HypeAuditor but gets only C- from SocialBlade, despite her picking up an average of 900 followers a month. Given that my own relatively useless Instagram (I post regularly from time to time but hardly use the app) gets a D, @UpThatRock’s grade seems inexplicably brutal.
No Answers, Just Strong Indications
What I quickly learned is that no service can definitively say whether someone has bought followers. Instead, the data they deliver can be is pretty damning and different services present it in different ways. If you’re a business that needs to regularly check the integrity of a number of users, a service like HypeAuditor is worth the money. As a curious individual, however, it’s quite expensive and free alternatives, such as Social Blade, exist. Of all the tools, my personal favorite — and it’s free — is IGAudit.io, a service which attacks the data using a unique method.
Free and Unique
IGaudit takes a different approach to assessing an account’s follwership. Rather than sifting through follow/unfollow/following data and suggesting conclusions from various patterns, IGaudit looks at 200 random followers and determines whether they each offer any value as an account. It then takes an average from those 200 profiles and delivers a score out of 100. Similar to HypeAuditor’s “Audience Quality Score,” this metric gives you an indication of how good an account is at reaching people. If the score is particularly low, it’s a sure sign that something sketchy has been going on.
I reached out to IGAudit’s creator, Andrew Hoque, who told of how he wanted a tool that’s easy to access (there’s no sign-up required) and free. Again, this is not a definitive method for determining if someone is cheating. As he explains, when it comes to companies looking to partner with an Instagram account, “if a user comes back with below 50%, generally we don’t recommend working with them as this is a reflection of their audience’s realness and reachability.”
Instagram is murky and the number of people cheating their stats is depressing — according to this documentary, even Hollywood superstars are buying followers. However, there are tools to give you an insight into people who are being dishonest. Paid services like HypeAuditor give you detailed data and are great for agencies who want to extensively vet an influencer before working with them. Free services — IGAudit in particular — are really useful for when curiosity gets the better of you and you want to see if someone has given in to temptation and tried to game the system.
The Depressing Final Thought
Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any consequences for buying followers, and Instagram is either overwhelmed with fake content and can't cope with it or — and this seems more likely — it doesn't care. The example accounts mentioned in this article won't suffer from other photographers or nerds like me rumbling their apparent duplicity; more likely, a naive client will glance at the account and be impressed by the numbers. For example, most couples choosing a wedding photographer won't make their selection according to the number of Instagram followers, but having a big following certainly counts in your favor. When trimming a choice of six photographers down to three, a couple might be swayed by the photographer with 10,000 followers over the one with a couple of hundred, and I doubt they'll start digging to see if any of those followers are real or not.
In short, if you've just learned how to spot cheats, you may also have just learned that you might as well follow suit and invest in some fakery.
With that depressing thought, if you have experience of buying followers or have any information on how to spot cheats, please leave a comment below.