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Leena Kewlani: Are you being followed?

Fake followers are a troublesome and costly part of social media fraud that particularly affects brands using influencers. DMS’s Leena Kewlani has had her own account cloned and explains how marketers can make sure their numbers are real

By Leena Kewlani,  branded content director, Digital Media Services

Influencer fraud is a major issue around the world, as well as in the region. This is where influencers buy followers and subscribe to bots to artificially boost their fans and engagement in order to increase their value in front of brands. It can cost as little as a few dollars to buy thousands of followers.

Today, the social media landscape is reeling from fake follower activity across all social platforms. According to a Points North Group study, up to 20 per cent of mid-level influencers’ followers are most likely bought. Benchmarking and measurement firm CampaignDeus published a study in mid-2018 that revealed 12 per cent of UK influencers bought fake Instagram followers. Moreover, Facebook recently admitted to its stakeholders that it had close to 60 million fake accounts and has started removing them from the platform.

A New York Times investigative article published this year exposed some of the companies that are running these ‘follower factories’. One company created more than 3.5 million automated Twitter accounts that imitated real people’s behaviour. They sold each account multiple times to influencers and brands, increasing their Twitter following by over 200 million followers.

So how do these companies create so many profiles that appear and behave like real humans? Think of it as a black market for social media, where in reality an identity is being stolen.

I personally have been a victim – and I am not even an influencer.

For those of you who don’t know me, I indulge in travel photography and often post my adventures on an Instagram account. But much to my surprise, I realised that there were five different Leena accounts active on Instagram and each of these had stolen my pictures and bio. In addition, all the fake Leena accounts were following in the region of 1,000 or 2,000 other accounts, while having fewer than 10 followers themselves. If you were to come across a fake Leena profile, you would find a legitimate person travelling, taking photos and posting. Needless to mention, I felt completely violated and immediately made my real account private. With the help of the publisher Alfan Group, I managed to reclaim my photos and got all the fake accounts deleted. But it did make me wonder about the volume of fake profiles that must be out there today.

There are also services where, for a couple of dollars a month, influencers can gain fake engagement with real Instagram accounts by sharing their Instagram log-in and credentials. These are scarily effective and extremely hard to trace. There also exist follow-for-follow programmes, along with platforms where influencers can buy views for their YouTube videos.

With the growth of bots and fake profiles creating a fraudulent view and engagement ecosystem, it is imperative that brands come together to crack down on influencers and platforms that indulge in this behaviour. Trust needs to be rebuilt and a solid verification structure put in place to ensure transparency.

As Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed stated at Cannes this year, “The key to improving the situation is three-fold: cleaning up the influencer ecosystem by removing misleading engagement; making brands and influencers more aware of the use of dishonest practices; and improving transparency from social platforms to help brands measure impact.”

The first step is for brands to work with platforms that utilise real-time data to discover updated insights on influencers. So brands are no longer relying on outdated statistics or waiting for screenshots to start making choices.

Platforms need to have access to historical data, which allows brands to check on the organic growth of an influencer’s account. If their follower count has spiked all of a sudden without an increase in engagement, this usually signifies fake followers.

Another key indication is related to the influencers’ posting language. Someone who posts in Arabic but has a huge follower base in non-Arabic speaking territories immediately stands out for having fake followers.

In your search for the influencers that will represent your brand, get your partners to dig deep into the comments left on an influencer’s profile. If there are comments in languages that are irrelevant, multiple comments with just smiley faces, or one-phrase generic comments (“love it”, “awesome”, etc.), that too can give you an indication. Real followers leave genuine comments on posts that they connect with. They have a natural interest in the influencer, often answering questions or asking for advice.

Fake followers will continue to cost brands heavily, unless brands stand up and demand greater transparency. Brands must compel platforms to invest in advanced technology that can help to identify bot-driven accounts. Only then can we get closer to an environment that promotes brand safety.

With a regulatory body now in place around the GCC, and brands starting to demand a data-driven approach, one would hope that this ‘Wild Wild West’ approach to buying followers and engagement stands to be curbed, if not totally eradicated.