When Instagram purged its user database of ~18.8 million fake accounts, created by bot programs and spammers, many users’ follower counts took a hit. The list of esteemed individuals affected by this so called “Instagram purge” included the likes of Justin Beiber, Ariana Grande and Barack Obama, each of whom lost millions of followers. Of course, this does not conclusively prove that these three had purchased followers; in fact, creators of fake accounts and bot scripts deliberately follow celebrities to make it seem like the dummy accounts are actually real persons with real interests. So, perhaps we should give the Office of the President of the United States the benefit of the doubt. However, many other celebrities or wannabe celebrities had indeed purchased followers and watched as their counts got decimated.Now, when I say “wannabe celebrity”, I don’t just mean hollywood “d-listers”. Our instafame culture is inspiring this generation of young people to make a name for themselves on social media in whatever way possible, creating mini social (media) hierarchies within their peer groups. The primary indicator of social media fame is the number of people who follow, or in the case of Facebook, friend you. Having said that, the follower count is an inaccurate reflection of a user’s clout and legitimacy, especially when it is so incredibly easy to purchase followers and increase one’s follower count. There are a number of websites (1,2,3) and apps which allow you to purchase hundreds of followers for as little as $5.00. So, the question is: should you buy followers?
THE CASE FOR & AGAINST BUYING FOLLOWERS
Buying fake followers can actually help increase your real follower count because of the fact that people tend to follow users who appear to be popular, and a high follower count is an (albeit deceptive) indicator of credibility. Thus, while most of your initial followers will not be human, soon enough you will acquire lots of genuine, real followers causing your follower count to grow at a much faster rate. And the more followers you buy, the faster your real count grows.
BUT, buying followers will only result in a higher number, not actual engagement! You won’t get retweets, your tweets won’t be liked, and you won’t get instagram likes from the fake followers!
Guess what, though? You can buy likes too! The very same sites which sell followers sell likes, too. So, that super-artsy black & white picture of your reflection in the window can get 500 likes from accounts which never even looked at the image!
BUT, that’s not real engagement. Real people are not liking your pictures. What you are actually doing is making it appear to other genuine followers of yours that you get lots of likes. Furthermore, these bot accounts cannot comment either, so they are not actually engaging with your material in a meaningful way.
BUT, so what? Isn’t social media a game of appearances anyway? Your profile picture is likely strategically chosen to present a specific image of yourself, your tweets are meant to achieve and inspire something in the reader with regard to how they view you, your Instagram photos are likely meticulously curated…so, what’s the harm in manipulating this aspect of your social identity in the same way?
Now, here’s where I stop being facetious and get on my soapbox:
I study online social networks for my graduate research. Specifically, I study mental illness and how social networks are used for the purposes of community-building, knowledge acquisition and constructing narratives about the self. Thus, to me, online social networks obviously hold a lot of importance. I grew up with the internet and, while it has numerous negative qualities too, I, like most, consider it a net-positive for humanity with the capacity for inspiring great change. From the Arab Spring, to an individual finding their future spouse online, from mobilizing voters and the ice-bucket challenge, to a single woman helping to increase skin cancer awareness through her viral selfie, social networking is an amazing, transformative cultural engine. None of the above would have been possible without meaningful social interactions!
So, by gaming the system, buying followers, and placing such a high importance on the numbers, you’re actually kind of ruining social networking for the rest of us. At its best, social networking is about interaction, connection, sharing, learning, and building relationships–whether they be business, consumer, friendly, romantic or otherwise–and meaning-making. Buying followers is literally meaningless.
Moreover, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear from one of my favorite movies of all time, if you are buying lots of followers, You are a sad, strange little person, and you have my pity! This is because buying followers is an inherently fraudulent act which is intended to deceive your followers and visitors into believing that you are far more important and influential than you actually are. This may also be an indicator of low self-esteem and a high need for external validation. The latter is common among many people, especially young people, but the fact that follower counts and likes help mitigate that need for validation for some is, to me, disturbing. The truth is buying followers won’t fix whatever problem actually lurks beneath the surface.
YOU’LL GET CAUGHT
Also, you won’t be outsmarting your real followers or visitors either because it is incredibly easy to spot fake followers. It’s simple really:
For a suspicious follower count of a person with little real life influence, legitimacy or authority, check their list of followers: if you see a lot of “eggs” on twitter denoting missing profile pictures and/or strange user names, those may be fake accounts. Bots have wised up though, and often use profile pictures of young girls and copy+paste the descriptions of other users in their bio to appear real. Depending on the bot farm, the usernames will be similar. For example, bot farms in Ukraine use Ukrainian names and at least 2 numbers.
One obvious sign is that the username is completely dissimilar to the profile name, and only first names are used in the profile name like “Amanda” or “Brittany”. These accounts will also have very few or no twitter (or Instagram) followers of their own, with very few or no posts, spam posts and infrequent posts. And, if you spot lots of these types of accounts in their follower list, chances are they are fake accounts and there are more where those came from. Other clues to look out for:
IT GETS WORSE
Buying large numbers of followers with the intention to deceive is accompanied by an assumption on the buyer’s part that their genuine followers are being outsmarted. But, clearly, it is easy to spot a fake. So, in an attempt to appear authentic, influential and credible you may actually do great harm to your reputation WHEN you are found out. And, you may also actually harm your real followers too because bot accounts have been known to hack and scam other followers in a user’s follower list.Now, some may ask: why does it matter if some person wants to have fake followers on a social media platform that doesn’t matter to me? Well, what does it say about the trustworthiness of an individual if they are happy to engage in such tactics? This is especially important if said individual is in a position of public trust like a…politician! Case in point: in 2011, in the run-up to the 2012 US Presidential election, Newt Gingrich went so far as to brag about his significantly higher Twitter follower count as compared to the other republican candidates. Well, he was found by an independent research firm to have purchased a whopping 92% of his followers! Similar allegations were made against Mitt Romney. Apart from their politics, would you vote for them? Businesses, journalists, artists and musicians are also known to purchase followers to appear successful, but knowing that a business or artist has done so only makes them less appealing, untrustworthy and, frankly, quite pathetic.
Bottomline: There are other, more productive pursuits that could be a better use of your energy than increasing the number of your followers. But if it is important to you, buying followers isn’t the way to go. While it is difficult and time-consuming to build an audience, content is king and should be the driving force of your popularity. More importantly, you might find that using social media for the right reasons is a lot more enjoyable than a fruitless quest for virtual numbers. Finally, our actions speak volumes and the seemingly trivial act of buying followers says a lot about the person behind the screen.
Bonus: If you’re bored, here’s a great time-waster: a ranked list of the most popular accounts on all major social networks.