Instagram, still the hottest platform for reminding your friends and loved ones that sunsets happen approximately once each day, has been cracking down on the pay-for-follow companies that churn out fake accounts. The app wants its users to have a “real” experience. So what’s a bot farm to do?
Vice’s Motherboard spoke to people closely affiliated with the farms—which used to produce hundreds of thousands of accounts each day, but are experiencing a drop-off in demand—to discover exactly what goes into making a fake Instagram follower and exactly why anyone would want one.
According to an individual named Juice, who works with a “social media marketing group” company called Rantic, people buy fake followers because it actually leads to more “organic” viewership. People who already have thousands of fans are likely to become even more popular when others notice how well-received pictures of their breakfast frittatas are, which leads to more attention from actual human beings who can’t get enough photos of pugs with cutesy sayings layered on top.
But all of that comes at a price. A million followers, for instance, could cost someone as much as $3,700. And those prices are bound to go up even more now that Instagram’s really watching to see which accounts are real and which are just made by people whose sole job is to create accounts and then follow, follow, follow, until their fingers feel like they’re going to fall off.
About eight months ago, Instagram made Rantic’s job harder by cracking down onspam. The financial hit from the crackdown forced Rantic to get smarter. Before December 2014, says a Rantic guy going by “Jackpov,” Instagram “had no spam filters.” But then the great “Instagram Rapture” happened, in which at least 18 million suspect accounts were deleted. Some users lost more than 3 million fake followers, for example, including Justin Bieber.
While Bieber and other celebrity clients make up a portion of bot farms’ revenue—six-figure clients, Motherboard reports, are rare but lucrative—the people who rely on the farms most are young women just trying to get ahead in the photo-sharing game.
To date, out of the “over 75,000 instagram clients” Rantic has claimed to service, 85 percent of their clients “are females 14-20 years old” said Juice.
What you may not realize is that making a bot is an intricate process, forcing those who are creating them (often people from developing countries) to spend hours upon hours not just making up usernames and verifying email addresses but copying content from other bots so that Instagram’s algorithms don’t get suspicious.
Removing bots and spam is a “major priority” for Instagram, communications representative Gabe Madway said in an email. Instagram has “dedicated teams across the company that focus on protecting people’s accounts and preventing abuse” on the platform, he said, who constantly “learn from scammers’ techniques.” Tools in their arsenal include “automated systems” that “use machine learning and other sophisticated techniques to help prevent and remove this content,” wrote Madway. So basically, bots looking for other bots. “We also rely on people to report spam when they see it,” he added. That is, if people can even tell who is a bot to begin with.
It turns out that telling bots from real people is difficult, even for real people—based on the fact that “most people are already very bot-like.” In other words, most people sign up for Instagram, follow a few people, heart a couple of Beyonce’s pics, and then settle into the routine of posting the same tired shit as everyone else.
You can read more about the fascinating world of bot farms here, but fair warning: the world of fake photo followers isn’t just competitive; it’s also very, very depressing.
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