The celebrities of yesteryear had a precarious and complicated path to fame. Those who weren’t born into elite social circles had to navigate the pitfalls of Hollywood or other entertainment hubs to become a famous actor, musician, or model. They relied on the studio system, MTV, and magazine photo shoots to keep them in the public eye.

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Now, thanks to social media, things are different. Being a celebrity is now a 24/7 occupation, dependent on YouTube videos, Instagram pics, and an ever-active Twitter account. Today’s most notable celebrities successfully cultivate and maintain their online presence to satiate their millions of fans.

Followers are a currency of sorts. They infer credibility and give us, somewhat sadly, a degree of self-worth.

Or do they? You’ve undoubtedly observed a few social media stars with an outrageously, suspiciously high number of followers. Sometimes, these numbers actually are too good to be true.

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In fact, there have been accusations over the years that many social media icons game the system, buy followers, and follow unscrupulous methods. And quite a few have been busted for it. Here’s a look at some of the most glaring offenders, how they got away with it (or almost did), and how you can build reputable social media presence without cheating.

Why do people buy fake followers in the first place?

Why would someone feel the need to fake their social media presence? Where’s the thrill in posting content that no one actually reads? It comes down to three things: ego, ease, and money.

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According to social media strategist Anthony Juliano, “Followers are a currency of sorts. They infer credibility and give us, somewhat sadly, a degree of self-worth. The old adage is that a crowd draws a crowd, so the larger your influence, the more likely it is it will grow—or at least that seems to be the case.”

“There are so many reasons it’s important to have large followings, depending on who you are,” Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California told Tubefilter. “…[Social media platforms] allow [business leaders] to speak to larger groups of people and to develop a reputation of being an expert or develop the credibility of being the person people are listening to.”

And another reason people buy fake followers? To find a way around social media algorithms, which make it increasingly difficult to gain a foothold without purchasing advertisements on their platform of choice.

Speaking of advertisers…

It’s not just about influencers trying to avoid paying for advertising services; they’re trying to get paid by them, as well.

“With the Instagram algorithm changes and the huge amount of spam or follow-for-follow accounts, retaining followers for long enough to build any real authority feels impossible,” notes YouTuber Cat Crawford. “It’s this struggle that sways people to buy their followers. With brands only choosing to work with those accounts with large follower numbers, those wanting to make money from these platforms feel like they have no other choice but to buy their followers.”

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Because of this problem, responsible advertisers should vet the influencers they choose to attach their products to, Juliano tells Urbo. “Advertisers’ primary interest, after all, should be reaching the right audience, not just any audience. …Advertisers need to be hypervigilant in ensuring that the influence they’re borrowing is legitimate and lasting, not purchased and fleeting.”

Monique Battiste, owner of J’Marie Digital Marketing, Strategy, and Designs, says that avoiding deceptive influencers can also protect a brand’s bottom line, especially for small businesses.

“[Small businesses] are taking a hit because they feel that they can pull in more sales using influencers, but some just take their money and run,“ she says.

How do you build a fake social media following?

Once people decide to buy fake followers, how do they go about attaining them?

“It’s incredibly easy to acquire fake followers,” says Juliano. “All you need is a little bit of money, and I do mean a little bit. For $19, for example, you can buy 1,000 Twitter followers. The prices go up from there, depending on how many you want and how legitimate you want it to look. Generally, though, skyrocketing your social media standing costs thousands of dollars.”

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“It’s as easy as a simple Google search,” Battiste reveals. “I recall working for a company and the boss wanted to look popular, and he wanted to buy followers. We bought 1,000 followers for $10. He had all 1,000 in less than four hours.”

Eric Johnson, digital content creator for FeedbackWrench, notes that the way an influencer fakes their numbers depends on their social media platform of choice, as Instagram and YouTube don’t follow Twitter’s playbook.

“On Instagram, there are many, many ways to manipulate the system,” he says. In a great number of cases, disreputable Instagram personalities use deceptive bots.

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“[Bots] rack up followers for a selected account by interacting with the community in a much more authentic-looking way. …By this kind of methodology, it’s possible to gain dozens, maybe even hundreds, of real followers every single day.”

According to a 2012 Forbes article, people could buy 1,000 Instagram followers for $90. Now, thanks to sites like Buzzoid, Devumi and iDigic, you can buy as many as 10,000 followers for under $70.

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YouTube differs in this regard, Johnson says: “There aren’t as many well-documented ways to cheat the system. While mega-influencers may be given preferential treatment by YouTube, most of these stars had to first reach their top-ranked status before earning that kind of reward. That said, it is possible to buy views and subscribers on YouTube—the results just don’t tend to be as authentic in appearance as they might on Instagram.”

Who are the worst offenders, and how do fake followers get sniffed out?

If you’re looking for prominent social media personalities with loads of fake followers, Juliano mentions Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry as a few high-profile examples. Perry made headlines in 2017 after TwitterAudit revealed she reportedly had over 67 million fake followers (her ratio has improved—out of her 120 million followers, just under 20 million are fake, according to TwitterAudit).

Juliano says one particularly embarrassing incident involved a film critic: “Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, who admitted to spending $650 to purchase approximately 50,000 Twitter followers … was suspended from his job and took a huge hit in terms of trust. That’s a pretty high price to pay in the long run.”

But it’s not just showbiz personalities who have fake followers, he says.

“Our current president is the most notable example, with as many as half of his Twitter followers being bots or fake accounts,” Juliano explains. “However, Barack Obama had the same issue on Twitter, so it’s a problem on both sides of the political aisle.”

So how can you tell if someone has fake followers? In addition to using tools like TwitterAudit or Statusbrew, Juliano says, “A good rule of thumb [is] that, the larger someone’s follower count, the more likely it is to include fake accounts, bots, or outright purchased accounts.”

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Battiste adds, “The numbers look good, but do the likes add up? Is the engagement there? You can do simple math by dividing the number of followers by likes, and that can give you a percentage of the followers that are actually engaging with the post.”

Accounts are rarely suspended for fake followers, making the problem all the more rampant. Because of this, public shaming and loss of confidence are often the biggest costs for getting caught in the act.

The Honest Approach

Instead of garnering millions of zombie followers, how can you grow an audience of real people who actually engage with your content?

“The best way to grow an audience, of course, is by having a great story to tell and doing so in a compelling way,” Juliano says. “But you can even find shortcuts that are ethical: using targeted ads to reach an audience that may be interested in what you have to say, for example, with the hope they follow you organically. The costs vary here, too, but it’s exponentially better in terms of legitimacy.”

Faking numbers is faking interest and authenticity.

Battiste says this approach is preferable in the long run: “At times, one may feel pressured to buy followers or likes, but in reality, organic growth is best. I use this analogy: Imagine walking up to a mansion, and it’s so pretty, but once you get past the door, you realize that it’s a studio apartment.”

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Both Juliano and Battiste point to micro-influencers as the future of social media.

“[Micro-influencers are] those who have a follower count that’s a fraction of the biggest names, but [their followers are] specifically targeted in a given geographic area, industry, or demographic,” says Juliano. “One benefit to the advertiser is that it’s easier to determine if the influencer’s followers are legitimate because … there’s fewer of them.”

Colleen Gwen Armstrong, lifestyle publicist and media consultant, suggests an honor system between influencers and advertisers: “If social media is the wave of the future and the way that we will buy/sell products and ultimately communicate with each other, each company and public figure should honestly reveal their actual numbers. Faking numbers is faking interest and authenticity. It’s only fair, and, in my opinion, a good business practice in general.”

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Unless influencers are willing to be more genuine and transparent about their social media presence and practices, they’ll be lost in a sea of bots, algorithms, and paid followers. Taking the social element out of social media would defeat its purpose altogether.

If you want to engage with actual human beings, you need to act like one, too. Creators should engage in best practices including finding the right niche for their skill-set, keeping an active profile with engaging content, and keeping up with current engagement trends. It may not make them an overnight success, but it’ll build an authentic fanbase brick by brick.

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