Influencer Fraud: Are Social Media Stars Dishonest Manufacturers and Duping Followers?
Influencer marketing is hot business. In 2020, ad spend and brand partnerships in the influencer marketing industry grew by more than $ 300 million, turning the industry into a $ 10 billion market. By 2022, this market is projected to be more than $ 15 billion, a staggering sum for what is essentially an emerging industry.
In many ways, the rising investment in the influencer marketing industry should come as little surprise. Brands and service providers have long been cautious about getting consumers used to the everyday bombardment of traditional digital marketing strategies (think website popups, podcast sponsorships, and Spotify ads). In search of new and innovative ways to promote their brand and infiltrate new markets, businesses large and small have flooded the influencer niche with lucrative partnership offers targeting popular accounts on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
Desperate for a slice of this digital marketing gold rush, stagnant influencers and new account holders resort to buying fake followers, likes, comments, and views. By artificially increasing their social media followers and manipulating their profile engagement, influencers hope to be able to use traditional popularity metrics to achieve lucrative collaborations with big brands.
At first glance, buying fake followers and manipulating engagement metrics might seem like relatively harmless crimes. However, the ubiquity of the practice is now having a significant impact on honest companies and authentic influencers. In fact, an analysis of the social media landscape paints a picture of a seedy, underground culture of deceptive influencers, misleadingly edited posts, and bot-driven engagement. According to Kamala Bryant, a London-based public relations manager and digital marketing specialist, the extent of influencer fraud is well past a few bad eggs.
“Three out of ten influencers buy fake followers,” Ms. Bryant said during an interview with the BBC.
“Lots of ordinary users feel lied to … influencers who buy their followers won’t care too much about what brands they work with because it’s spurious,” added Ms. Bryant.
For a more vivid example of influencer marketing scams in action, check out Esther ‘Coco’ Berg, a Miami-based socialite and popular Instagram influencer with a checkered history of drunk, abusive posts. With more than 327,000 Instagram followers, Ms. Berg is trying her social media account to paint a picture of a lavish lifestyle with soaring trips, luxury shopping trips and decadent meals, in contrast to her offline life where she was displaced, after she was unable to pay rent on her riverside apartment in NY. Her three Instagram accounts promote a wide range of brand partnerships, and endorse and sell everything from designer fashion items and party planning packages to coffee equipment and skin care products.
An analysis of Esther Berg’s social media data shows an increase of around 3,000 followers between July and August 2020. This erratic increase in followers convinced several social media tracking companies to conduct a more detailed analysis of Ms. Berg’s Instagram accounts . Of the remaining “real” accounts, a large number seem suspiciously similar to the Russian dummy accounts (i.e. no posts, no profile picture and less than 100 own followers). Finally, the average number of comments on Ms. Berg’s posts for a report on her size is unusual, another tell-tale sign of rigged engagement metrics.
Despite the abundance of data pointing to spurious metrics, Ms. Berg has so far managed to evade any commercial ramifications – although former fans gather to reveal their earlier problematic posts. In the meantime, Ms. Berg continues to drive traffic to her Instagram account using a combination of daily social media posts and puff-piece PR articles (click here for an example of Ms. Berg’s scratchy editorial style See PR articles). .
Unfortunately, the trend towards fake followers is no longer the sole responsibility of the YouTube and Instagram gurus. A staggering number of authenticated celebrity social media accounts have been exposed for the use of purchased followers and bot comments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most shocking examples of celebrity influencer scams come from the entertainment industry. In 2020, Mumbai Police interviewed Badshah, a celebrated Indian rapper after confessing to buying nearly 72 million YouTube views in an attempt to break a world record and exaggerate the release of his song Pagal Hai. A few years earlier, another well-respected entertainer, hip-hop mogul Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, was the subject of a New York Times investigation into dummy accounts after journalists saw his Twitter follower numbers fluctuate in one day.
Even hitherto unknown political figures succumb to the charm of social media fame. Recently, Newt Gingrich, a former Republican Congressman and one-time presidential candidate, came under fire for buying fake followers after PeekYou, a social networking research firm, concluded that of its 1.3 million Twitter followers, only 106,055 were tied to real accounts.
Regardless of the humor of a contactless entertainer and a strictly conservative politician who pays for fake Twitter followers, the fraudulent influencer marketing problem has become a serious problem. Real followers are not only fooled by fake profile data, they also have to put up with fake followers and spam bot comments on their social media feeds. Buying fake followers also has a very real impact on the bottom line of brands. When companies partner with an influencer like Esther Berg, Ms. Berg is expected to use her social media seal of approval to expand her partner’s customer base and help them capture new demographic data. However, when an influencer buys fake followers, it inorganically increases the value of such a partnership and costs brands an exorbitant amount of money.
After all, follower manipulation causes irreparable reputational damage to many honest influencers who are simply trying to make a living. In this context, unscrupulous influencers like Siel Devos, a European lifestyle blogger, have to shoulder the brunt of dwindling opportunities and frayed relationships with corporate partners. “It’s kind of depressing. They think these bloggers are famous because they work for it until you find everything is bought, ”Ms. Devos admits. If you’re starting out in the influencer industry and want to keep people like Ms. Devos in business, the best thing you can do is grow your followers through talent, not money and fake bots.