This article originally appeared on VICE India.
If last year’s Fyre Festival has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t discount the influence of Instagram or social media-fueled revenue. But how does one become an influencer—what comes first, the followers or the content?
I created @asharao900 to find out how fast I could cheat my way to likes and followers on one of the top spaces for engagement, and a lucrative marketing platform.
I duly posted an unimpressive picture of a slipper and began looking for hacks to boost my likes and followers.
Across markets many brands have turned to influencers—users with a wide audience—as a cheaper and more efficient form of marketing. In 2016, Adidas signaled a sea change when it announced it would stop advertising on television and spend more on digital advertising, micro-targeting customers based on specific likes and interests, using data collated by internet firms.
On Instagram, brands measure the effectiveness of a campaign by the number of people who see a post (impressions) and the number of likes and comments a post receives (engagement). Influencers in turn are investing in growing their followers faster than is possible organically.
First, I signed up for the free version of a service called Instamacro, which claims they could help “build your Instagram community by automating your liking and following activities.” This would increase my chances of “being viewed and followed back.” Immediately, I got six likes and followed 200 accounts.
A variety of paid plans, ranging between $2.99 to $109, give Instamacro users access to their services for a specific period. Instamacro is US-based, but a Delhi company called Social King, started by Shubham Shubh Gupta, offers the same service at the rate of 100 followers for Rs250, and 20,000 followers for Rs17,500.
A friend then introduced me to Tanuj Mishra, a 26-year-old in Rajasthan, who asked we not use his real name. Greasing the wheels of the influencer-driven marketing industry, Mishra sells popularity in the form of likes and followers to well-known celebrities, social media influencers, and brands.
After telling him what I wanted over the phone, Mishra got to work. He wouldn't tell me how he had accomplished it, but within two hours, @asharao900 had over 100 likes on the picture of a slipper and 400 new followers.
For Mishra, it’s easy money. He charges ₹2,500 for every 10,000 followers, and ₹150 for every 1,500 likes. Mishra dropped out of an MBA program at a business school to focus on making Rs. 1.5 lakhs per month for about two or three hours of work a day. He taught himself the trade, and, in his free time, thinks of ways to expand his business following pioneers in the Instagram economy. He also travels regularly to Mumbai to give demos to people who use his services.
Mishra believes at least 90 percent of celebrities and influencers pay for followers, though no one I talked to admitted to this practice. Bloggers Farah Magi and Sarang Patil, who have 32,000 and 167,000 followers respectively, denied having paid for popularity. Nilu Yuleena Thapa, who runs street fashion blog Big Hair Loud Mouth, told me, “Let us not talk about this. You’ll not get an honest answer about this from anyone.”
One influencer, however, was more forthright. Akanksha Redhu, who has 125,000 followers on Instagram, gets up to 5,000 likes and 20 comments every time she posts. She has collaborated with brands like Coach, Bobby Brown and Vogue Eyewear and charges between Rs 25,000 to 100,000 per campaign.
Redhu, a fashion and lifestyle blogger, told me she bought 5,000 followers a few years go through an online service, but didn’t remember the details. She stopped paying for followers after she eventually lost the ones she had bought. But she continues to pay for automated likes through a service she declined to name because it boosts her visibility.
“There are apparently better, more expensive ways to buy followers, which I haven't tried,” Redhu said. “After a point, I just didn't want to spend that kind of money on buying followers that were not helping me with actual engagement because they're not real people.”
I sympathized. @asharao900 had lost half of her fickle followers in two months, once Instagram detected that they were bots and kicked them off the platform. Although these automated accounts created through software programs are banned by Instagram’s terms of service, marketers like Mishra create bots to inflate their clients’ follower base.
The smarter the bots, and the more believable, the more expensive they are. Mishra charges ₹2,500 per 10,000 “low quality followers”, ₹3,500 for mid-quality followers, and ₹4,500 for high quality followers.
A dumb bot typically has fewer than 20 posts, follows thousands of accounts, and has a relatively small number of followers. They have usernames like “xcoyotegirl” and “nnho2”, and no wider internet presence. Some of these accounts are private.
According to Abhishek Narwariya*, a Gurgaon-based coder who worked for an e-commerce app that used bot accounts to inflate certain influencers, the smarter bots are impossible to distinguish from real people. They can leave comments on posts, and can like images posted by other bots, bolstering the impression that both users are real.
An Instagram spokesperson told me over email that “internal estimates show that spam accounts make up a very small fraction” of the user base, and that “We have a number of teams dedicated to detecting fraudulent behaviour and shutting it down.” Yet a 2015 study estimated possibly 24 million Instagram accounts could be automated.
Bots are difficult to repress. “When 20,000 profiles are taken down, another 20,000 pop up,” said Narwariya. “It's easy to keep creating them.”
Instead of targeting potential paying customers, brands often end up advertising to these fake accounts. Karthik Srinivasan, the national lead of social marketing at Ogilvy & Mather India, thinks that 20 to 30 percent of influencers’ followers are bots. But Instagram isn’t overly invested in policing them, he said, because “The more the likes and followers, the better it is for the company.”
I asked representatives at Indian fashion and lifestyle brands Pepe Jeans India, and Ayesha Accessories how they assessed potential influencers for campaigns. “We begin by shortlisting bloggers and looking at their digital tapestry,” said Neha Shah, Pepe’s marketing head. If a blogger doesn’t get much traffic on her site but is strong on Instagram, “We may ask them to bypass blogging altogether and feature our product on their social media platform.”
"Mostly, it’s a numbers game,” admitted Redhu, though some brands take the time to properly vet an influencer’s following.
At times, brands approach influencers through an agency like Ogilvy. According to Srinivasan, the problem is that “Most brands don't know how to see whether a collaboration has worked or not when they have paid an influencer.” The agency becomes responsible for keeping track of influencers and looking out for red flags.
“It's a very new industry,” said Gokul M., a publicist in Bengaluru at public relations agency PR Pundit, which has clients like Forever 21, Hugo Boss, Gap, Adidas and Koovs. “We try our best to educate our clients but marketing heads from top B-Schools don't have much knowledge of social media and have an old-school way of thinking,” said Gokul. He added that brands have lately become more aware of the problem of fake followers.
Advertisers might realize the risks, but still go ahead. “Brands act irrational,” said Srinivasan. “Sometimes even if they are aware of influencers having fake followers, they still want to go ahead and do campaigns with them because other competitors are associated with them.”
“Popularity is the new currency,” Mishra told me. In the world of Indian Instagram marketing, it comes with a high inflation rate.