Racking up followers and likes on photos gives a sheen of legitimacy to small businesses or aspiring social-media influencers. If 10,000 people are following them, someone quickly scanning through Instagram might think, “Maybe I should start paying attention to them, too.” And popular accounts also tend to attract advertisers.
But marketers have started to wake up to how the system can be gamed.
“The follower count is really completely meaningless,” said Bob Gilbreath, chief executive of Ahalogy, a marketing technology company in Cincinnati. “It’s untrustworthy for the true following, and it’s certainly untrustworthy for the quality of the creative work.”
Instagram has been tight-lipped about why it is just now going after such sites but said that “fostering authentic community activity is a priority and our policies reflect that.” A spokeswoman for the company said it views “any service that allows people to create bots to gain inauthentic followers as spam,” and pointed to guidelines that prohibit users from artificially collecting likes and followers and posting repetitive comments. Several of the shuttered sites posted notices online saying they closed at Instagram’s request but did not elaborate or respond to requests for comment.
Grappling with “inauthentic” activity from actual users is a distinct challenge from dealing with accounts that are manufactured altogether. Those remain a problem for social platforms including Instagram, which notably deleted millions of fake users in 2014 in what was known as the “Instagram Rapture.” The automation services, which log into customers’ accounts directly and run at speeds that evade detection, say they simply mimic what people do to build their accounts, at prices cheaper than paid ads.
But some see them as fueling a disconnect from real human effort and interest on Instagram, even cheapening the platform. Calder Wilson, a professional photographer, wrote a post on PetaPixel, an industry blog, in April that described his two-year experiment with running an Instagram account that relied on Instagress to attract followers and likes. With only $10 a month and five minutes of his time per week, it quickly beat his carefully curated personal account on both measures.
Instagress enabled the user name @canon_bw to target users based on a long list of hashtags like #blackandwhite or #IGdaily, commenting on some with “Nice!” or strings of emojis. (These services can also target followers of large accounts like their competitors or, say, @nytimes.) In one 30-day period this year, the @canon_bw account liked more than 27,000 photos and left almost 7,000 comments, some of which led to enthusiastic responses. Mr. Wilson, 28, found it unethical, comparing “botting” to steroid use by athletes and lamenting the broader impact on Instagram’s culture.
“If you’re a photographer trying to build a following or anyone trying to get your work out there and meet new people, when you get a genuine interaction, that feels good,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “When you have Instagress coming in there and leaving fake comments like ‘stunning photo’ and ‘stunning gallery’ and there’s no one behind it and then the likes — it’s as if they hijacked that personal neuropathway in your brain.”
Sara Melotti, another photographer, wrote a confessional blog post recently that outlined other methods influencers use to increase their numbers so brands will work with them. She said the practice accelerated after Instagram stopped showing posts chronologically last year and started ranking them by what its data said people wanted to see or click on. Many panicked after seeing their engagement drop after that, she said.
In addition to automation, she described buying followers, joining pods of 10 to 15 people who commit to liking and commenting on photos as soon as they are posted, and participating in bigger groups that coordinate posts and comments for the same time in hopes of appearing on Instagram’s “Explore” tab, where they will reach even more people.
“It doesn’t make sense what we’re doing for these numbers,” Ms. Melotti, 29, said. She decided to reveal the tactics and stop using them, she said, because the focus on so-called Instafame stopped rewarding original work and seemed to be having a toxic effect on other artists’ self-esteem and perception of reality.
These discussions have not been lost on marketers, which spent more than $570 million on influencer marketing on Instagram last year, according to estimates from eMarketer.
Mr. Gilbreath of Ahalogy recently introduced a service for agencies and brands to verify quality, traffic and other metrics around influencer marketing campaigns. He recommended identifying powerful creative work through such users and paying Instagram to promote sponsored posts from them, rather than relying on endorsements to their accounts based on their numbers.
To be sure, the bot-enabled activity might well be the internet’s most pleasant form of spam, particularly compared with the nefarious Twitter bots designed to spread propaganda. But it can be annoying and intrusive.
Even as many automated services have closed, others appear ready to take their place. Ads for two, named Gramista and Robogram, appeared recently after searching Google for “Instagress.” Gramista’s website said that for $1.79 a day, it would “automate liking, following and unfollowing just like a human being would.” Another, named Archie.co, which bills itself as a “liking application,” said it works with both Twitter and Instagram and would help users “find real eyeballs in a much cheaper way than paid advertising.”
Closing such businesses is like playing Whac-a-Mole, in part because they are working directly through individual accounts, avoiding any approval process with Instagram, said Alex Taub, the co-founder of SocialRank, which helps marketers find and analyze followers on Twitter and Instagram.
“This is a little extreme, but I think the way you stop this is you start banning all the accounts that use it,” Mr. Taub said. He is skeptical about the types of followers the services attract anyway and pointed out the strangeness of accounts using bots to engage with other accounts using bots.
Mr. Wilson said he was questioning how many of his new fans on the @canon_bw account were real. The top five cities that his followers on his personal account came from were all in the United States, while on the experimental one, four of the five top cities — including Istanbul; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Mexico City — were outside the country.
“People use this stuff because it makes your life a little easier short term because your audience is growing,” Mr. Taub said. “But your audience is probably growing by bots, and it’s probably bots talking to bots.”
“It’s like hot air,” he added. “It’s not real.”
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