There are data scientists who have explored this in detail, so I’ll provide my own perspective instead of the charts and graphs that you might have seen in the New York Times.
Just like someone’s number of followers can underscore someone’s popularity or success on Instagram, the number of fake or malicious activity that has been directed to their account is becoming even more of a mark of shame,
The influencer space is crowded with people who fake it til they make it. Or, fake it, and use the platform to create other opportunities for advancement. It’s a mixed bag, but the last time I believed what I saw on Instagram was probably back in 2018.
Fake activity is rampant on Instagram, not just amongst top accounts but also among accounts with tiny follower counts.
The trick is to differentiate between those who passively benefit from fake activity and those who actively pay for fake activity. There’s a good chance that you’ve been the beneficiary of automated activity without even knowing it. Ever wonder how other accounts found and commented on your new pictures so quickly? Ever wonder why their comments are so generic? They’re bots. But you can’t be blamed for it, it doesn’t reflect poorly on you. You probably just posted using a hashtag that is popular with bots.
To catch a main offender, it’s quite easy. It’s about assessing the engagement level relative to followers. If someone has 10,000 followers and gets 50-100 interactions per picture, something seems wrong there. This scales up to those with 100,000 followers, and all the way down to those who seem like they have just 1-2000 more followers than they should.
Often, there’s a smell test involved. If the account is quite new and has a short post history but has 10,000 followers, that’s suspicious. If the account has a lot of follower but you, as a human, can judge their content to be awful, that’s really suspicious.
More than anything, fake followers, when purchased, will almost always arrive in round numbers. If a round number is matched with a low number, or if the following is just short or a round number, that’s extremely suspicious!
What do I mean? Well, If a user with 200 followers buys 10,000, they’ll have 10,200. Compared to, say, 13,800, 10,200 seems really off. If you view as many accounts on a daily basis as I do, you’ll eventually build intuition for fakeness.
You can also use services like socialblade to check follower growth. I highly recommend using services like this regardless of the platform. Unless the user controls the bots, it will be extremely easy to identify spikes in the follower count.
The last “tell” of a user having fake followers is if they ever reference how many followers they have. If you see a website or a bio where the user talks about their Instagram following, I would bet money that they’ve manipulated the number in some way. If your livelihood depended on it, wouldn’t you?
Because faking is so rampant on Instagram, Tree Frog Social focuses more on exposure than pure follower count. We want real fans to find our customers rather than an army of bots who do nothing to boost their businesses.