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Instagram’s Problem With Fake Users Might Be Much Bigger — and Far Darker — Than You Think

Instagram’s Problem With Fake Users Might Be Much Bigger — and Far Darker — Than You Think

In August last year, IG Audit  — a free web app that allows you to check the authenticity of an Instagram user’s followers — went viral on a wave of press centered around Instagram’s fake follower problem. Just one month later, Facebook’s lawyers abruptly forced the website offline, and IG Audit’s Instagram account of 20,000 followers was deleted. These aggressive moves might be hints of a scandal that Instagram is trying to keep quiet.

IG Audit was created by Andrew Hogue, a Caltech graduate and former Facebook intern, with the intention of bringing some transparency to an increasingly murky platform. With the influencer industry now worth upwards of $8 billion per year, a lot of money could be at risk if Instagram follower figures were easily manipulated. Unlike other platforms such as Hype Auditor or Social Blade, IG Audit analyzed accounts on the fly, giving immediate figures based on some very simple criteria. More importantly, it was free and public-facing.

Trust and Authenticity

Having the ability to check the authenticity of a user’s following is crucial for brands looking to work with influencers. In a time when even Hollywood stars are thought to have bought followers, it’s no wonder that such services are in demand. While HypeAuditor is a subscription service well suited to big brands and ad agencies that need to run checks on a regular basis, IG Audit offered something far more accessible. The analysis ran within 20 seconds, and the result was a single percentage figure that gave a clear estimate of authenticity: the lower number, the more followers were potentially fake.

IG Audit was also a means by which genuine influencers could prove their authenticity. Instagram is currently in the process of removing likes from individual posts, robbing influencers of their clout and pushing brands to use Instagram’s more conventional advertising. Removing brands’ capacity to check an account’s legitimacy is another nudge in the same direction.

Millions — If Not Billions — of Fake Followers

In August last year, London’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) published the results of a study into some of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars and their Instagram profiles. The results were alarming. At the time, Ellen DeGeneres had 74 million followers, and according to this report, 58 percent of them were suspicious. That’s almost 43 million accounts that may be fake. Other celebrities didn’t fare much better: among various stars were Kourtney Kardashian (80 million followers, 49% suspicious) and Taylor Swift (119.5 million, 49% suspicious). If you were a clothing brand paying Ariana Grande to publish a photo of her wearing your jacket to her 159 million followers, you suddenly needed to keep in mind that 73 million of those people — more than the entire population of France — may not exist.

Ariana Grande Instagram

Ariana Grande now has 185 million followers. A percentage of these followers are not real people. Only Instagram can tell you how many.

The news was huge and drew viral attention — both to the problem and to IG Audit, the tool that was key to revealing this vast potential fraud. Within a week, the story had blown up, picked up by HypeBeast, Paper Mag, Mashable, GQ, and NY Post, and later by Wired and the BBC.

The Need for Transparency

“I saw it as a systemic change in a space that could benefit from more transparency,” explains Hogue, describing why he built his web app. “It seemed like a public service that really needed to exist. Fake followers were distorting people’s self-image, and brands were being misled by fake influencers at scale.”

With this sudden explosion of attention, Hogue’s passing interest in social media fakery had suddenly become the standard means of checking whether someone had been cheating at Instagram — or at least, had a lot of suspicious followers. Jennifer Lopez probably didn’t buy 44 million bogus followers — certainly not all of them — but fake accounts need to appear legitimate, and they have to follow someone, so where better to hide them than among the hundreds of millions of people who follow celebrities?

Hogue’s campaign for transparency had entered the mainstream, but catching the attention of the public also meant catching the attention of Instagram’s owner and puppet master: Facebook. What came next was a little unexpected.

Instagram's Insidious Inertia

Instagram’s fake follower problem is far from new, but the inertia that Facebook seems to have demonstrated in dealing with the problem has long been assumed to be down to a lack of desire rather than something more sinister. The manner in which it has gone after IG Audit may be more insidious than it appears at first glance. In short: Facebook’s value as a company is highly correlated with user growth metrics. And who is responsible for calculating those statistics and ensuring their integrity? Facebook. Further, in a recent SEC Filing, Facebook notes that:

Estimates of duplicate and false accounts are based on an internal review of a limited sample of accounts, and we apply significant judgment in making this determination.

A NATO report suggests that 95% of fake social media accounts remain online after being reported, and Facebook continues to struggle to counter the problem despite a $3.7 billion annual security budget. Given that a flattening in user growth can lead to a 19% overnight drop in the company’s value (as witnessed in July 2018), removing literally hundreds of millions of fake accounts would likely have a dramatic impact on the share price. If the market capitalization can fall by $120 billion in a matter of hours at the news that growth has slowed, what would happen if Instagram suddenly decided to remove 100 million — 10% — of its one billion monthly users because they were phony?

Facebook and Instagram's Insidious Inertia

The letter that Hogue received from Facebook was relatively short, but at the center of its argument for taking IG Audit offline was one issue: privacy. To Hogue, this didn’t make much sense; the data IG Audit was using to create its analyses was accessible to every Instagram user. His software had simply analyzed and presented it in a way that could be easily understood. Despite this, Hogue wasn’t about to take on Facebook’s lawyers. “With a billion-dollar legal budget, a lot becomes legally defensible,” Hogue notes, reflecting on Facebook’s reputation for ethical integrity. “As a one-man team, battling Facebook in court is financially unfeasible.” As it stands, the IG Audit app is offline, replaced with a link to a petition to have Facebook drop the legal threat, a campaign that has so far garnered more than 60,000 signatures.

Statistical Slipperiness

Facebook’s careful use of its own statistics and how they are calculated would not be unprecedented. Last year, the network agreed to pay a settlement for cheating its video metrics by up to 900%. Having looked across Silicon Valley and wondered how it could eat into Youtube’s video advertising revenue, Facebook deployed some rather questionable tactics. The exaggeration of their metrics was inadvertent, Facebook claims, though court documents suggest that Facebook knew about the problem early on and decided not to act. In short, multiple advertisers were misled into shifting their business to Facebook because of the massively improved reach that it offered. This reach proved not to be slightly erroneous, but massively inaccurate.

The legal proceedings are expected to result in a $40 million fine for Zuckerberg’s company. A Facebook spokesperson stated that “this lawsuit is without merit” but would not challenge the ruling. Several companies have folded as a result of moving their videos to Facebook. From now on, third-party measurement companies will work with the social network, and it will be regularly audited by the Media Rating Council.

A Convenient Inconvenience

This fine is pocket change to Facebook and barely compares with the $5 billion penalty recently imposed by the Federal Trade Commission for undermining users’ privacy, though even that will barely put a dent in Facebook’s revenues. Whatever the truth of how fake accounts might be inflating Instagram’s apparent value, control over personal data is a more pressing issue for the company — an issue that could also be proving rather convenient.

According to Hogue, the infamous incident with Cambridge Analytica might be a controversy that Facebook has been able to use to its advantage. “User privacy felt more like a narrative that they could lean on rather than the crux of why they sent the letter,” he observes, and you can understand his suspicions as this is an excuse that has been deployed by Facebook in the past for questionable purposes.

Zuckerberg is believed to have directly overseen a series of moves carried out between 2011 and 2015 to consolidate Facebook’s power and kneecap competitors, being very selective about when it chose to share its data. When the messaging app MessageMe was starting to prove popular, Facebook saw a threat. To hamper its growth, it prevented MessageMe from retrieving a user’s Facebook friends to send out messages inviting them to download the app. Access to Facebook’s magical API data was switched off, and MessageMe disappeared into obscurity.

Facebook clown holding a ballon

According to a huge data leak totaling more than 7,000 pages, Facebook was — during this same period — striking deals with other companies to give them unique access to user information. Facebook states that it has never sold data to a third party, and yet Amazon, Spotify, Microsoft, and Netflix have all been granted unique access to private messages. Coincidentally, these were all companies that spent large amounts of money on advertising on Zuckerberg’s platform. Essentially, Facebook appeared to be categorizing third parties into whether they were big spenders, neutral, or a threat. Allegedly, those who bought advertising were given almost unfettered access to data, while those who posed a threat were cut off. As one Facebook employee describes in the huge cache of documents, “it’s sort of unethical.” “It just makes me feel like a bad person,” a colleague agreed.

Privacy as a Patsy

Concern for privacy is now potentially an excuse for impeding anything that might be a threat, a useful justification to be deployed as required. If IG Audit was pulling back the curtain on Instagram’s enormous fake account problem, Facebook could quickly close it down by claiming data privacy and backing it up with lawyers equipped with near-infinite resources. As noted by one of Facebook’s team who helped to decide which companies got access to which data, privacy concerns meant that “we’ll be able to tell a story that makes sense.”

Instagram’s problem with fake accounts could be massive. Potentially, it may be vastly inflating the platform’s value, and Facebook’s apparent inability to address it might be down to its potential impact on the company’s share price. For now, IG Audit remains offline, and Instagram’s fake account problem goes largely unremarked.

Nobody but Facebook can prove that the problem exists, and doing so could cut its share price in half. Under the circumstances, you can understand why a service that threatens to shine a light on the scale of the fakery would be under attack. The story of IG Audit may indicate how Instagram has evolved into a platform where hundreds of millions of people simply do not exist.

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Previous comments
Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you for a very interesting article.

Tom Reichner's picture

Wow, Andy -tackling this issue in an article seems like quite a task! I appreciate how you explained the situation in detail - that took a lot of research.

I also REALLY like the way you used the words "might be" in the title. It is a relief to see a title worded accurately, instead of these blanket statements that can be false in so many situations and for so many readers. Thank you for writing an accurate, descriptive title, instead of a click-baitish one that stretches the truth in order to pull in more readers.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Tom. Yep, it was a lot of work. Andrew Hogue's contribution is the heart of it - he's a fascinating person to speak to.

And yes, Facebook's lawyers can really shape how you word a headline... ;)

Joshua Boldt's picture

great article

bluepanik's picture

Great article. Congrats F-stoppers, you should keep this path.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I did audits on several local followers who were supposedly "famous" and one even claims to be involved with a cellphone company somehow. A large percentage of their followers were all fake.

Simon Patterson's picture

Fascinating article. I think that if you replace every instance of the word "problem" in it with "feature", you describe what's happening from Facebook's perspective.

Mike Shaw's picture

I've been on Instagram for almost 5 years, dirigoimagery, and only just recently broke 200 followers. I started a new profile on April 24th, for my travel and outdoor lifestyle photography, dirigoimagerytravel, and I have 49 users. In the beginning I got a lot more likes and interaction, but now it seems no matter what I do, I only get a few likes. I use relevant tags, and I swear Instagram prevents people from seeing my posts. I've never paid for followers, or Instagram ads. I'm trying to attract potential clients, so I'm pretty specific with my tags. Maybe that's part of my problem.

Just me's picture

Better get 50 real followers than 2,000 fake one.
Just keep doing it the way you like.

Deleted Account's picture

The problem is that there are many, many, many guys like you and the web/instagram is thousands, thousands, thousands bigger that your offerings. There is just too doggone much stuff out there. Your work may be great, Mike, but how is it different from everything else out there and why should anyone even look?

Fristen Lasten's picture

Facebook says Instagram pulled in $20 billion in revenue last year. Total horsesh|t, I report every single ad on IG; and 99% of the reports result in a response from IG saying the ad violated IG's ToS. With that kind of hit rate, where are they making $$$?

Les Sucettes's picture

The ads are mostly scam companies trying to sell Alibaba sourced products as “niche” hiking 🥾 or whatever products. All you have to do is look up the product on Alibaba or Aliexpress and you see exactly the same thing for 1/10th of the price. Priceless.

Anyway I report them too but they just reappear. There’s some legit stuff of course but crazy how much spam ads there are.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I'd like to ask a question of any of the commenters here since I've only got two years (or so) experience with Instagram. I don't have many followers and most of them are people I actually know or have known. Yesterday I got a notice that some user I didn't recognize was now following me. Upon checking the profile I found it had Zero posts but had a significant follower and following count. So I blocked that follower, figuring it's a phony account of some sort.

Was I right? Should I even care about something like that?
Any opinions are welcome.

Tom Reichner's picture

There are a number of real people who are active engaged on Instagram who don't make any posts. In fact, these days, stories seem to be more popular than posts; many of the people I know post stories regularly, but hardly ever post anymore.

Instead of just blocking them, it may have been better to send them a message, to thank them for following you and to ask them what it is about your photography that caused them to follow you. If you don't receive any response after a week or so, then you could have blocked them. But to just block them right off the bat ...... I'm not sure how that is beneficial to you.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you Tom, I appreciate the explanation. I hadn't considered the stories angle at all...I tend to not look at those very much. Something I should pay more attention to, I suppose.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Why would you block them? Were they harassing you or stalking you?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

---"I found it had Zero posts but had a significant follower and following count. So I blocked that follower, figuring it's a phony account of some sort."

For me, I block 'em. Maybe it's nothing, but surely they are up to no good.

Sergio Thor M's picture

Great article! thanks

Joe Hogan's picture

here in Europe just this week there are a lot of wtf is going on comments from people, well established photographers as well as up and comers.