LOS ANGELES — Popular photo sharing website Instagram.com, a Facebook property, has conducted a massive purge of fake profiles in a social media cleanup that is reshaping many marketer’s plans for 2015.
A recent report from CNN Money has highlighted the problem of “fake followers,” by revealing the vast number of fraudulent social media accounts that artificially bloat the popularity of many of today’s top celebrities — such as musical performer Justin Bieber — with a reported 15 percent of his Instagram audience comprised of fake accounts.
While 15 percent may not seem significant, for Bieber, this amounts to 3.5 million bogus followers — and he is not the only celebrity who may not be as popular as some fans want to believe.
For example, CNN Money also revealed that Ariana Grande lost 1.5 million followers (seven percent), while Kim Kardashian lost 1.3 million followers (more than five percent). Rihanna also lost 1.1 million followers (eight percent), as did Bieb’s girl Selena Gomez (nearly six percent), and Taylor Swift shed around 725,000 (nearly four and a half percent), faring better than her peers in the Instagram Rapture.
Instagram itself lost a reported 30 percent of its traffic volume after deleting the more than 18.8 million fraudulent accounts out of its base of 300 million users.
According to adult social media strategist Lauren MacEwen of 7Veils.com, all social networks periodically purge their accounts for fake profiles.
“The problem is that the networks do not know with certainty which accounts are fake and which are real,” MacEwen told XBIZ. “Services such as SocialBakers.com and StatusPeople.com both check how many fake followers are on an account. However, both are incredibly inaccurate [because] they take a small sampling of 1,000 followers or less, to gauge the percentage of your followers that are fake.”
MacEwen notes that the last time she checked it, SocialBakers reported that Twitter’s @BarackObama had 89 percent of its audience comprised of fake followers.
“You can get fake followers by buying followers; by having someone send you fake followers (i.e. buying them for you); by tweeting a hot topic; or by having a high profile account,” MacEwen explains, adding that “an account with fake followers does not necessarily mean that they bought all their followers.”
In addition to bragging rights, celebrities and others seek to skew their actual number of followers in an effort to earn more money from advertisers, and to boost their number of legitimate followers, among other reasons, in a process that has not escaped the attention of the adult entertainment industry.
Porn promoters have long embraced social media marketing as a way of broadening a company’s reach and boosting the popularity of particular performers.
According to PornStar Tweet’s Pete Housley, the buying and selling of fake followers and likes is a subject that is near and dear to his heart, telling XBIZ, “For pennies, you can buy everything you ever wanted if you want to be a fake celebrity.”
“For very little money, nearly anyone can be a faux celebrity — but that’s really the issue with all social media,” Housley says. “Despite the ‘Instagram Rapture’ or the countless other Twitter ‘purges’ over the years, the spam and fake accounts persist.”
Housley cites services that provide audiences for popular social media platforms such as YouTube, for which views, likes, dislikes, subscribers, comments and re-shares are available. Likewise, Facebook group, post and photo likes, as well as profile subscribers and widget likes, are all for sale for a small fee.
Similar services target Google Plus, SoundCloud , Twitter, Vimeo, Vine, and yes, Instagram.
“There are really two issues here,” Housley explains. “One issue is the people that buy these followers in an effort to ‘boost’ their own celebrity status. The second issue is these ‘fake’ accounts that follow real accounts in an effort to look more ‘real’ — and to potentially garner some attention from liking or commenting on higher profile accounts.”
Housley says this second example is the more likely case in the Justin Beiber scenario.
“I’d doubt if Justin’s PR people were out buying him followers or likes,” Housley offers, “but there are a lot of people that might like to see some residual exposure on something that the Bieber posts.”
Housley notes that adult talent buying followers on Twitter and Instagram has been rampant for years, and that there’s not really any solid way to track it or prove that they are buying followers. The reason for this is simple and one that he predicted back in 2009 — casting agents consider these numbers when they are booking talent.
“Every social media account, no matter how grassroots, is going to have a percentage of followers that are either fake or inactive,” Housley explains. “Some of our research on average porn star accounts indicates between three and seven percent are inactive or fake.”
Housley explains that a variety of metrics are used to analyze an account’s verity, such as the ratio of followers to followed (which is usually low on both counts), the account’s activity and the number of original tweets versus re-tweets, as well as other factors.
“It used to be that we’d get a strong statistic from a count of the daily number of mentions about an account,” Housley reveals, “but even now, that is compromised by automated tweets and more prevalent re-tweets.”
Housley advises that there are tools for analyzing an account’s integrity, such as TwitterCounter.com, which for $9 will extol numerous statistics on any given account, while other services such as Klout.com also try to score the value of an account.
“If a follower count is the ‘shower’ of the social media community, then engagement is the ‘grower,’” 7Veils’ MacEwen says. “People like to have a big number for their follower count, but 100,000 followers means nothing if they are all show and no go.”
“Engagement is the number that really matters because that is the number that delivers ROI,” MacEwen adds. “If you have people talking to you, sharing your posts, giving you endorsements and clicking your links, then you have a successful social media campaign.”
With social networks accused of inflating their numbers, the allowing of fake profiles is a problem that is likely to be addressed in 2015 through more frequent account sweeps in order to purge these networks of bots and other fraudulent accounts.
“To stay on top of the game,” MacEwen concludes, “brands and people, need to worry less about the number of followers and worry more about the quality of followers [because] it’s not the size of the ship, it’s the motion of the ocean.”