Following a call from Unilever at the start of the year to “rebuild trust in influencer marketing,” Instagram has detailed plans to clamp down on all third-party apps that help creators attain “inauthentic” followers.
There’s a host of apps and plugins on the market that lure Instagram influencers with the promise of a bigger number next to that ‘following’ indicator, as well as greater engagement on their feed — all things that make creators a more attractive buy for brands.
A cursory search on Apple’s app store shows results for a number of services that assure an increase in both. The apps work in different ways: sometimes bot followers are purchased with cash; in other instances, inauthentic followers are acquired in exchange for like-for-like engagement on posts, facilitated by the apps.
In the UK alone, one in eight Instagram influencers admitted to purchasing fake followers this year. Yet, according to a World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) study, marketers plan to up their influencer marketing budgets – with Instagram named their platform of choice – despite the prevalence of these opaque practices.
How is Instagram going to stop follower fraud?
For its part, Instagram will start removing any likes, follows, or comments from accounts that have used these type of services to boost their popularity. To aid its crackdown, it has built an AI tool that identifies this kind of behaviour and the accounts associated with it.
Along with removing fake engagement, Instagram will message influencers who use these services in-app to alert them of the new process and ask them to reset their password to prevent third-parties from accessing their accounts.
Instagram said some people may have unknowingly shared their login credentials with fake follower apps, and if it detects this activity these people will also be asked to change their password.
“These new measures will be ongoing, and accounts that continue to use third-party apps to grow their audience may see their Instagram experience impacted,” cautioned the Facebook-owned image platform — without elaborating on what that “impact” might mean.
Since it launched, Instagram has monitored fake accounts and removed them, but its latest play to extend that attention to external apps abusing its API shows that it's ready to take extra steps to make sure the interactions that happen within its walls are genuine.
What does the industry think?
Unilever’s top marketer, Keith Weed, brought the issue of influencer ad fraud to the fore during Cannes Lions in June. At the time he said the company — which owns Dove, Lynx, and other large brands — would refuse to work with influencers who it identified as having fake followers. Instead, Unilever will prioritise partners who increase their transparency and work to eradicate nefarious practices throughout the digital ecosystem.
Weed has welcomed the move from Instagram, saying: “Dishonest practices like buying fake followers or fake engagement from bots pollute the entire system.
“We should all be encouraged by these steps to identify and address this type of activity. Instagram is one of the most popular social networks worldwide, and I very much support it taking action and removing inauthentic activity from its platform.
“It's another positive step on the journey to build trust back into our digital ecosystems and wider society.”
For Nik Speller, head of campaigns at creator platform Influencer, it's a welcome update at first glance. But, he said, it only seems to go so far.
"This update only seems to tackle automated account control and not the purchase of followers and engagement that can be done without using a third-party app," he explained.
"It would be interesting to know, in general, what Instagram plans to do to identify and delete the mass of accounts out there which are used to add followers and engagement to those wishing to buy them. And whether it plans to tackle the companies who offer these services — many of who actively advertise on Instagram and Facebook," he added.
Though there’s little research available into how each of the main platforms that influencers use (namely YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest) compare in terms of fraudulent behaviour, it's Instagram – which 40% of ANA members recently ranked as the single most important influencer channel – which has emerged as the one of most concern.
Anti-fraud company Sway Ops found that a single day’s worth of posts tagged using the recommended hashtags #sponsored or #ad (the avoidance of which is another issue in itself) contained over 50% fake engagements and that bots are responsible for over 40% of total comments for more than 500 of 2,000 sponsored posts made each day.
For Jessica Shirling, influencer consultant at We Are Social, there's also the question of how Instagram plans to punish repeat offenders.
"These measures are a good start; however, it would be nice to see more responsibility placed on accounts who are buying the fake interactions, rather than accounts who are giving interactions to others," she said.
Influencers might also find a workaround: "As it always the case, just as quickly as Instagram develops tools for identifying irregular behaviour, there will be other people trying to find loopholes. It may be easy to identify fake accounts, but it becomes more complicated when the fake interactions come from genuine accounts."
"Unless there are repercussions for using these services, if they get stopped from using one service, they’ll just move onto the next," Shirling said.
Speller wants to know what Instagram's owner Facebook plans to do about fake engagement.
"It will only grow in strength as automated engagement is properly tackled and prevented," he said. "It would also be interesting to know what punishments Facebook will consider employing for those people who they find to repeatedly break these rules.
"Will it just be 'damage' to the accused content's reach and engagement? Or will they look to enforce their terms of service by banning offenders for a short period of time — or outright? If these rules are considered toothless by those people who engage in influencer fraud, there will be no incentive to change."