If you’re a part of the millennial generation, you likely remember when the internet was first introduced into your life. This probably means your parents set you up with, say, your first Juno email account, or that you begged them to let you download AIM.
It also might mean you rolled your eyes, like I did, when they warned you about the dangers of talking to strangers on the internet, and they made you promise you’d never step virtual-foot in a chat room.
Boy, have things changed. While talking with someone I hadn’t met “in real life” was a groundable offense in my childhood home, I now engage with people on a daily basis that I met online—friends, employers. Chatting with people I’ve never met in person has become so commonplace, and I would never assume they’re not who they say they are.
Just because it has become more common to talk with strangers online, that doesn’t mean you should blindly trust every person you follow on social media, especially Instagram. Fake accounts are a big problem on the photo sharing app. And since so many users on the popular social media platform are faking it, it’s hard not to wonder what the motivation is behind the farce.
Why create an Instagram account that’s all a lie?
In 2014, Instagram deleted millions of accounts that appeared to be fake. People lost hundreds, thousands, millions of followers.
Maybe these fake accounts were run by users pretending to be someone they’re weren’t, or maybe they were bots bought by someone trying to grow their following. Either way, they’re a nuisance Instagram still deals with—they might be gearing up for another “Instapurge” this year.
Fake Instagram accounts are all about fame and money, according to Jenay Rose, a wellness influencer and yoga teacher living in Los Angeles. With over 50,000 followers on the app, she has experience growing a brand.
People create fake accounts for all different reasons. The bot accounts can be used by websites to enter into contests … or to ‘follow’ and ‘like’ other accounts per the directions of the owner. People will create inauthentic accounts to legitimize their brand, try to sell their product, or use it as a ploy to work with various brands who may send them free items because [they appear to] have a large platform.
If you’ve never seen a fake account on Instagram, you’re probably not looking hard enough. Below are some of the most notable stories of Insta-frauds.
The accounts that bought their fame.
Although it might seem strange for an established, worldwide celebrity to feel pressure to buy more fame, that’s exactly what appears to happen on Instagram.
In the 2014 “Instapurge,” Instagram cleaned up their platform by deleting any accounts that appeared to be bots or bought-followers.
As a result, we learned something very interesting about celebrity Instagram users: they might be buying some of their online following. After the crackdown, The Guardian reported that Justin Bieber, Tyga and Kim Kardashian each lost over a million of their followers. Akon, a hip hop star, actually lost over half of his followers in the purge.
If you think you’re following someone who’s buying their followers, Rose shares a few tips for spotting them:
Engagement is an easy tool to use for this. For example, if someone has 100,000 followers but gets 600 likes [and six comments] on a photo … their engagement is incredibly low … [and] they may very well have purchased followers. Because it is so easy to purchase fake followers, I think brands are beginning to take note of this. If you have a brand or business, make sure that the social media influencer you are working with gets a lot of engagement—comments, likes, reposts, etcetera.
“If hundreds or thousands of an Instagram influencer’s followers have no profile pictures or have posted little or no content themselves,” reads a guide on Mediakix, “they are likely fake.”
The account that faked it to make a point.
Not all fake Instagram accounts are faked to grow follower counts. Just recently, two accounts were intentionally faked to prove a very important point—that nobody, brands included, should trust everything they see on the internet.
This summer, Mediakix, a online marketing company, decided to test out just how easily an Instagram account could be faked for financial gain. They created two accounts, one using a model to create content and another using only free stock photos. To grow their follower account without raising any eyebrows, they bought a thousand followers each day.
Within weeks, both of these fake accounts were offered sponsored posts worth a total of $500 in free products and monetary compensation.
Why is this a problem? Mediakix believes that buying followers, as well as likes and comments, is common practice and can be seen as a kind of ad fraud, according to their summary of their experiment. Brands are paying these accounts to promote products to their “large following,” but that following largely doesn’t exist. When users are buying their followers, brands aren’t getting their money’s worth.
The account that tugged at heartstrings.
Belle Gibson, creator of The Whole Pantry app and author of the eponymous cookbook, had 193 thousand followers on her now-deleted Instagram account, @healingbelle.
In this case, it wasn’t that Belle Gibson didn’t exist, it was that she built her fame on unsubstantiated claims about her health history. Gibson claimed to have been given four months live before she made a radical lifestyle change. She said she’d been cured of her terminal brain cancer by following a new diet —the diet she began selling through her app and cookbook. By early 2015, Gibson had reportedly made more than $1 million on her app and cookbook.
The reality was that Gibson never had cancer, The Guardian reported. She’d been using the money she got from her followers to maintain a ritzy lifestyle.
When it was all said and done, Gibson was believed to have cheated her followers out a hundreds of thousands of dollars, which she had raised for charities but never donated, according to Fairfax Media. Her trial is ongoing in Australian courts.
The accounts that are stealing their fame.
It may be commonplace, but that doesn’t mean you’re destined to be fooled by fake users. Spotting celebrity impersonators is pretty easy, according to Rose:
Typically, a celebrity with have the little blue Instagram check mark by their name, which is a verification signal that they are legitimate. You can also tell by the engagement and the way the account is run. Typically, people will own the rights to their own name, so someone who is impersonating a celebrity would have to have numbers or digits after the name, like ‘selenagomez_fan’ or ‘selenagomez1’ instead of just ‘selenagomez.’
The accounts that are stealing from other users.
It’s hard to say which faked Instagram accounts are the most insidious, but I think this one just might take the cake. Celebrities aren’t the only users being impersonated—everyday people and their children are at risk, too.
For instance, parenting blogger Kristen Howerton wrote about her own experience having her photos stolen from her account. Her story is especially strange, as the account was actually a fake celebrity account that was using pictures of her daughter. Apparently, the person who created the account decided Howerton’s young daughter looked just like Mia Talerico, star of Disney’s Good Luck Charlie, and stole her photos to fill their feed.
After Howerton confronted her more than once, the fake user deleted the stolen photos, but never came clean that she was impersonating a celebrity (er, a celebrity’s mother) online. In her blog for Rage Against the Minivan, Howerton discouraged other parents from putting photos of their children online.
The fakes accounts that are a dime a dozen.
Fake Instagram followers are a dime a dozen. Actually, if you want to split hairs, the going rate is $2.97 for 100 followers these days.
That’s because there are services out there that sell fake followers to anyone desperate for a boost in their online following. Some do it for the status that comes with having thousands of followers, while others want to land sponsored gigs but don’t have the numbers to make it happen.
Fake accounts like these are called bots, and Mediakix gave some tips to spot them:
Spam-bot accounts typically have a high ratio of people they follow to people following them, as well. While authentic accounts usually have a 1:1 follower-to-following ratio, fake accounts follow an average of 41 Instagrammers for each one that follows them.
And beyond all that follower-to-follower math, Rose sums things up rather succinctly:
Use your sensibility [on Instagram]— if something looks strange and desolate or too good to be true, it probably is.