The Rise of Fake Influencers and How to Spot Them



How Mediakix showed the world that one can turn into a brand-sponsored Instagram “Influencer” in under three months and what businesses can learn from it.


Access exclusive SMW+ content by marketers whose careers you can emulate with a free 30-day trial!

By VideoInk’s Nicolette Acosta

When looking at the online personas of Instagram influencers it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. They’re all gorgeous, fashionable, and incredibly well traveled-but are they? Mediakix latest social experiment proves how easy it is for businesses to unknowingly spend their social media marketing budget on social media figures who have no more influence than your grandmother who still thinks dial-up is a thing.

The Experiment

In as little as the last year, the Instagram influencer market has grown exponentially. It’s currently estimated at $1 billion and that amount could double by 2019. With so much money to be made digitally it’s no wonder that people are trying to jump on the influencer bandwagon by inflating their social media stats through paid services. The influencer marketing agency, Mediakix, started by creating two fake Instagram accounts: Calibeachgirl310, a fashion and lifestyle centered page, and wanderingggirl, which focused on travel and adventure photography.

For Calibeachgirl310 (aka. Alexa Rae) the company hired a local model and had a one-day beach photo shoot. Wanderingggirl was a bit more cost-effective, as her page was solely created from free stock images online. It took one day to gather enough content to create two realistic accounts, post daily, and begin to purchase followers. Although the company would not disclose which engagement purchasing sites they used, they did say that the ones they chose varied between $3–8 per 1,000 followers, $4–9 per 1,000 likes and an average of 12¢ per comment.

Within two months Calibeachgirl310 had garnered over 50,000 followers and wanderingggirl over 30,000. The company purchased between 500–2,500 likes and 10–50 comments for each photo and after it had built up enough of an “online presence” it went to work on securing brand sponsorships. After securing the necessary number of followers to sign up for an “influencer marketing platform” (around 10,000) the separate accounts applied for several campaigns daily. After applying for a “couple dozen” campaigns, the pages ended up with two brand sponsorships. Across both fake accounts, the company secured over $500 worth of monetary and product compensation within a few weeks of signing onto the platforms.

[READ] Creator Courtship — How Social Video Platforms are Trying to Keep Creators

What can businesses learn from this?

Choosing brand ambassadors solely off of social media following is no longer enough. Companies that are desperate to dive into the Instaworld in order to reach more of a millennial audience easily fall prey to this sort of ad-fraud. It’s important to not just look at the number of engagements an account is attracting, but the quality. What does their comment feed look like? Is it a bunch of “Nice!”, “Woah!”, and “So cool!” or is it a legitimate interaction (ie. Asking what brand they’re using, where they got something, etc.)? Another predeterminate that can be used is researching the pages to make sure they actually represent the brand that you want your company associated with.

At Vidcon 2017 panelist and longtime social media socialite, iJustine (Justine Ezarik) spoke to how frustrating it can be when companies reach out to her with sponsorships that are completely off brand (I.e. Asking a tech star to represent your makeup line).

“…It’s also a responsibility for us to have to say no to brands, to say, ‘This is not gonna work out and if this is gonna work out, here are the stipulations and this is what we have to go through to make this product work.’ Because we know our audience and they think they know our audience, but I’m like, ‘Trust me, if I post this I’m going to get made fun of and so are you.’” Ezarik said.

If companies are either too stretched for time or are feeling like they lack the social media skills necessary to distinguish the princesses from the frogs, there are several businesses (like Mediakix) who are designed to pair up brands with appropriate, legitimate influencers. There are also companies who will research specific pages for you to try and weed out influencer imposters.

[READ] What Machinima Learned After Launching a 24/7 Channel on Twitch

Straight From the Media Horse’s Mouth

The VideoInk team was able to dish the dirt with Mediakix’s Head of Marketing, Jeremy Shih, and discuss this social experiment as well as his thoughts on the future of Instagram Influence Marketing:=

After you bought a certain number of followers did real followers naturally find you and did you eventually stop buying them, but continue to see the accounts social reach grow?

JS: We purposely built these fake accounts using all the “wrong” methods (meaning we did not use hashtags to encourage organic engagement or interact with/follow users on Instagram). Once we got onto these influencer marketing platforms, we did end up adding hashtags and following a few users in order to appear more “real” to brands. As most bots target hashtags in order to leave automated comments, as soon as we applied hashtags, we did receive comments whether organic or (likely) not.

It would have been extremely easy to continue growing these accounts in a purely fake manner but we’ve stopped since going public with our experiment. Surprisingly, we’re now getting real followers and engagement on these two accounts due to interest in our experiment.

In your opinion could one actually “fake their way” to top of the line brands? Or is this more reserved for smaller companies/startups/less media savvy ones who either don’t have money, time, or where-with-all to invest in such programs?

JS: Even with these services or programs you mentioned, it’s extremely difficult to weed out fake influencers or use an algorithm to determine how much of an influencer’s audience is fake. If it was feasible, Instagram (owned by Facebook, one of the largest corporations) would have done this already as the practice of bots, fake followers and engagement is prohibited by the social media app.

Our experiment proved it’s very easy to fake your way to substantial brand sponsorship deals. It does get harder/more expensive to do so once an influencer reaches a certain level of followers and/or notoriety because they’re scrutinized much more closely by both brands and their audience (in addition to becoming much more expensive to purchase followers and engagement on a larger scale).

[READ] How Media Companies are Tackling Sports in an OTT World

As evinced by our experiment, it’s extremely easy to “fake your way” with smaller or micro influencers. Unfortunately, a lot of these smaller or micro influencers secure brand deals on influencer marketing platforms where brands either are unable to vet these influencers closely or are unaware of these deceptive practices. Hopefully, our experiment brings to light the possible pitfalls brands should be wary of when working with influencers.

Are there any new angles on the “fake influencer” that you feel hasn’t been touched upon? If so, what? How is the industry going to adapt to these new techniques? Or is the “age of the influencer” over?

JS: Fake influencers and engagement have been around for a while but no one has really brought to light or likened it to the ad fraud that’s afflicted the display industry. An unscrupulous influencer buying followers in the tens of thousands or more, tripling their sponsored post rate to match an inflated fake following, and then accepting brand deals is ad fraud. As influencer marketing grows, it’s important to recognize and be aware of the growing pains as this issue affects everyone — advertisers, influencers, and audiences. Hopefully, with greater awareness of the issue, all parties will work towards eradicating these bad practices, or for a start, being smarter with influencer marketing.

What are the best ways for companies to weed out “fake influencers”?

JS: There are a wide variety of factors to consider when vetting influencers and just because an influencer grows their follower account quickly within a short amount of time does not necessarily mean it’s a red flag for possible fake followers or engagement. Brands can work with established influencer marketing companies or agencies who’ve developed longstanding relationships with high-performing influencers and proven campaign results.

This article first appeared on VideoInk


Learn the latest trends, insights and best practices from the brightest minds in media and technology. Sign up for SMW Insider to watch full-length sessions from official Social Media Week conferences live and on-demand.

Newsletter Subscription

Get the latest insights, trends and best practices from today's leading industry voices.

Learn More

Write for Us

Interested in sharing your ideas and insights with the world? Become a SMW News contributor and reach 300k readers each month.

Apply Here