Influencer Fraud: Are Social Media Stars Cheating Brands and Duping Followers?

Influencer marketing is a hot business. In 2020, ad spending and brand partnerships in the influencer marketing industry grew by more than $300 million, turning the industry into a $10 billion market. By 2022, this market is projected to exceed $15 billion, an eye-watering sum for what is essentially an emerging industry.  

In many ways, the surging investment in the influencer marketing industry should hardly come as a surprise. Brands and service providers have long been cautious about consumers becoming habituated to the everyday bombardment of conventional digital marketing strategies (think website pop-ups, podcast sponsorships, and Spotify ads). Seeking new and innovative ways to popularize their brand and infiltrate new markets, small and large companies have flooded the influencer niche with lucrative partnership offers, targeting popular accounts on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.    

Desperate for a slice of this digital marketing goldrush, stagnant influencers and new account holders are resorting to buying fake followers, likes, comments, and views. By artificially boosting their social media followership and manipulating their profile engagement, influencers hope to leverage the conventional metrics of popularity to obtain lucrative collaborations with large brands.  

At first glance, buying fake followers and manipulating engagement metrics may seem like relatively harmless crimes. However, the sheer ubiquity of the practice is now having a significant impact on honest companies and authentic influencers. In fact, an analysis of the social media landscape paints a picture of a shady, underground culture of fraudulent influencers, deceptively edited posts, and bot-driven engagement. According to Kamala Bryant, a London-based PR manager and digital marketing specialist, the scale of influencer fraud has long since moved beyond a few bad eggs.  

“Three out of every ten influencers buy fake followers”, said Ms. Bryant during an interview with the BBC.  

“A lot of normal users feel lied to…Influencers who are buying their followers aren’t going to care so much about what brands they’re working with, because it’s inauthentic,” added Ms. Bryant.  

For a more illustrative example of influencer marketing fraud in action, look no further than Esther ‘Coco’ Berg, a Miami-based socialite and popular Instagram influencer with a checkered history of drunken, abusive posts. Boasting more than 327,000 Instagram followers, Ms. Berg uses her social media account to attempt to paint a picture of a lavish lifestyle of high-flying travel, luxury shopping trips, and decadent meals in contrary to her offline life of being evicted after being unable to pay rent on her Riverside apartment in NY. Her three Instagram accounts promote a wide range of brand partnerships, endorsing and hawking everything from designer fashion items and party planning packages to coffee equipment and skincare products.  

An analysis of Esther Berg’s social media data shows a surge of around 3,000 followers between July-August 2020. This irregular spike in followership convinced several social media tracking firms to perform a more detailed analysis of Ms. Berg’s Instagram accounts. Of the remaining ‘real’ accounts, a large portion appears to be suspiciously similar to Russian dummy accounts (i.e. no posts, no profile picture, and less than 100 followers of their own). Finally, the average number of comments on Ms. Berg’s posts is unusual for an account of her size, another telltale sign of manipulated engagement metrics.   

Despite the wealth of data indicating inauthentic metrics, Ms. Berg has so far managed to evade any commercial consequences – although former fans are flocking to reveal her prior problematic posts. In the meantime, Ms. Berg continues to drive traffic to her Instagram account using a combination of daily social media posts and puff-piece PR articles (click here for an example of the fawning editorial style of Ms. Berg’s paid-for PR articles).  

Unfortunately, the trend of inauthentic followers is no longer the sole purview of YouTube and Instagram gurus. An astonishing number of authenticated celebrity social media accounts have been exposed for using purchased followers and bot comments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most shocking examples of celebrity influencer fraud can be traced back to the entertainment industry. In 2020, Mumbai police questioned Badshah, a celebrated Indian rapper, after he confessed to buying close to 72 million YouTube views in an attempt to break a world record and hype the release of his song Pagal Hai. Several years earlier, another distinguished celebrity entertainer, hip-hop mogul Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, was the subject of a New York Times investigation into dummy accounts after journalists noticed massive intra-day swings in his Twitter follower numbers.  

Even previously aloof political figures are succumbing to the allure of social media fame. Recently, Newt Gingrich, a former Republican Congressman, and one-time presidential candidate, came under fire for buying fake followers after PeekYou, a social networking research firm, concluded that of his 1.3 million Twitter followers, only 106,055 were attached to real accounts.  

The humor of an out-of-touch entertainer and a staunchly conservative politician paying for fake Twitter followers notwithstanding, the issue of fraudulent influencer marketing has become a serious problem. Not only are real followers being duped by false profile data, but they also have to put up with fake followers and spammed bot comments in their social media feeds. Purchasing fake followers also has a very real effect on the bottom line of brands. When companies partner with an influencer, like Esther Berg, there is an expectation that Ms. Berg will use her social media cachet to expand her partner’s client base and help them penetrate fresh demographics. However, when an influencer buys fake followers, they are inorganically inflating the value of such a partnership, costing brands an exorbitant amount of money.  

Finally, manipulating followers is causing irreparable reputational damage to many honest influencers who are simply trying to make a living. In this context, scrupulous influencers like Siel Devos, a European lifestyle blogger, are left to bear the brunt of dwindling opportunities and fraying relationships with corporate partners. “It’s kind of depressing. You think these bloggers are famous because they work for it until you realize that it’s all bought,” admits Ms. Devos. If you’re starting out in the influencer industry and want to keep people like Ms. Devos in business, the best thing you can do is grow your followership through talent, not money and fake bots. 

Written by Monella