Fraudulencers, fakes & the growing need for social media authenticity

Guest contributor Kasper Tait weighs in on the problem of fraud within the influencer realm.

OPINION PIECE

In 2017, it’s fairly ubiquitously known that what we see and read online is not always as it seems.

Your favourite Instagram model probably doesn’t get her teeth whitened five different times by five different companies throughout the year, nor does she “Love, love, LOVE!!! <3” that new watch quite as much as she says she does.

But what if I told you that the deception went even further?

Introducing the ‘Fraudulencer’. Worse than the self-proclaimed “Fitness Model, Entrepreneur, Coffee Addict & Lifestyle Guru” we’re all painfully familiar with (or my new favourite: “Public Figure”), the Fraudulencer is one who has gained their following not through a clever combination of #ManCrushMondays, #TransformationTuesdays and #ThrowbackThursdays, but instead a simple “$2.97 Only!” PayPal transaction. All is not lost however, and lucky for us, Fraudulencers are relatively easy to spot. If someone’s following consists purely of accounts with long strings of numbers in their name, no posts whatsoever, and hails from Kazakhstan, you can feel fairly justified in assuming that something is amiss (more on that later).

For some context, I came into the PR world from the other side of the spectrum, a – dare I say it – ‘influencer’ looking for something social media related with a little more substance to sink my teeth into. If I sound like I have a bone to pick, it’s because I do. As a person who punctuated their days with a constant stream of Snapchats, Instagrams, Tweets, YouTube videos and livestreams for the better part of a year, it’s frustrating to see so many people achieving similar levels of success through the swipe of a credit card. After a brief spell in LA also, where an introductory exchange of names was almost always followed by, “So, what do you do?” (Translation: “How can you benefit me?”), then, “How many followers do you have?” (Translation: “Can you really benefit me?”), it’s unsurprising that this climate has sent everyone into a dizzying frenzy of buying followers in a desperate bid for attention. In fact, despite efforts by the company to reduce the number of bots on their platform, a 2015 study estimates that a shocking 8% of Instagram’s entire user base comprises of fake accounts.

More than my personal grievances however, is the problem that this causes for brands, who are not only being ethically and morally ripped off, but also to the tune of several hundreds of dollars. A blatant disregard for professionalism, these deceitful ‘Grammers are receiving free products and experiences – often accompanied by a hefty payment also – in exchange for promoting to an audience that is in fact, not real. In avoiding this, one useful tool to employ is SocialBlade, a website that tracks Instagram accounts extensively from their first search on the platform onwards. Uncharacteristic and often seemingly outrageous spikes in net followers, for example, should help confirm your bot-buying suspicions, while those users guilty of ‘spam following’ — a similarly disingenuous practice – raise other red flags entirely. While not buying followers outright, this particular breed of Fraudulencer instead employs bots on their behalf; to mass follow and engage with thousands of accounts per day. Building disconnected audiences of users from all around the world, these individuals, though courteous for following the Fraudulencer back, aren’t particularly engaged nor interested in them, and are of even less use to said Fraudulencer’s sponsors.

Consider this: what if it was discovered that a prominent newspaper inflated their readership figures by a similar margin? A radio station their listenership? Absolute outrage would most certainly ensue, the outlet’s reputation would be tarnished beyond repair, and their name struck from the media lists of PR agencies worldwide. Too long operating unchecked and unchallenged, a similar stand must be made to the Fraudulencers of this world, if not for my own sanity, then in the name of authenticity, legitimacy, and genuinely compelling content.