Table of contents
  1. 1. What is a fake influencer?
  2. 2. Characteristics of a fake influencer
  3. 3. How to identify fake influencers
  4. 4. Case studies

Since the early days of social media, there have been fake accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. Today, influencer marketing is a billion-dollar industry, and some people try to game the system by paying for likes and followers to enhance the performance of their profiles, which eventually turns them into fake influencers. According to a New York Times report about the black market for fake followers, up to 48 million of Twitter’s users—nearly 15 percent— may fall into the category of fake accounts. On Facebook, almost 60 million fake accounts are interacting with and influencing many users and communities on the world's largest social media platform.

So, what are fake influencers and how can your brand avoid collaborating with them? 

 

What is a fake influencer?

In influencer marketing, fake influencers are defined as people who boost their social media accounts using fraudulent actions, such as buying followers, hacking likes or faking comments. Their purpose is to build profiles that appear influential (many followers, lots of engagement, etc.), in order to capture the attention of brands so they can be hired to collaborate on influencer marketing campaigns. 

In these collaborations, brands usually suffer. As defined in our influencer marketing wiki, the influencer’s role is to be a bridge connecting brands to the audience as well as delivering brand messages to potential leads/ customers. Thus, working with fake influencers is like sending a letter to the wrong address -- the intended audience won’t see it, and the people who do will ignore it or, even worse, turn against the brand. Additionally, some “follower farms” are creating Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts using robots, then selling them to fake online key opinion leaders (KOLs). These “bot-followers” are a major threat to influencer marketing since a brand’s messages will go nowhere-- there’s nothing on the other side of the bridge. To protect themselves from this threat, marketers need to have the knowledge and the tools to identify fake influencers. 

Characteristics of a fake influencer

There are far more fake influencers on the market than most people realize. Luckily, most of them share similar traits which can be spotted easily using a proper influencer analysis tool. Here are some common characteristics of influencers with fake followers:

1. Irregular changes in the number of followers 

It takes a lot of time and effort to gain a large number of followers required to become an influencer on social media. It takes time for each post to reach a decent amount of users and receive their feedback (this gap varies depending on the social media platform). Therefore, unless there’s a clear explanation, a sudden increase or decrease in followers is usually a signal of a fraudulent act.
Using InfluencerDB’s platform, we can see that influencers who develop their profiles organically will show consistency in follower change (mostly increasing). On the other hand, another account (in this case most likely one that has paid for followers) has a growth-graph featuring random spikes, as shown in the image below:

Sudden changes in followers can be a very strong guiding signal to help marketers identify fake influencers. However, there have been many cases of overnight influencers, who go from zero to hero with just one or several viral post(s). In these cases, the follower growth ratio can be quite similar to those of fake accounts. Thus, we need to look at all the characteristics to be able to evaluate the quality of a profile. 

fake-influencer-follower-change-by-InfluencerDB

Follower changes of a fake influencer © InfluencerDB

2. Low audience quality and inconsistent audience demographics

Audience quality is a meaningful metric to measure the performance of social media profiles as well as to detect fake influencers. High audience quality means the influencer has true and supportive fans who are willing to follow and consume their content. Low audience quality, however, indicates that those accounts follow many other channels and, as a result, have a higher chance of skipping the content posted by the influencer on their newsfeed. InfluencerDB’s analysis platform is a simple tool for brands to measure the audience quality of any influencer on Instagram. 

Marketers also need to check the demographic information of influencers and their followers. Local presence is super important in influencer marketing since it narrows down the target audience group. Thus, demographics are an excellent way to spot fake followers. Real influencers usually have a concentrated audience, for instance, a specific gender, language or region. Accounts with fake followers, on the other hand, usually have an unstructured set of followers coming from everywhere in the world. The top location of an authentic influencer’s fans will usually be their home country or their main working region. A large number of followers from anywhere else might be purchased.

Audience quality and demographics can be applied to most micro-influencer profiles. Of course, for celebrities like Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, fans may come from every corner of the world, but no one needs to question whether Selena is a fake influencer or not.  

The audience quality of a fake influencer

3. Low or irrelevant engagement (comments, like-follower ratio, etc.)

Finally, it’s essential to take a look at the engagements on influencer’s profile, such as likes, shares, comments, retweets or hashtags. Marketers should be able to analyze these activities using social media metrics (likes per post, like-follower ratio, average comment per post, etc.). These data indicate how authentic and natural an influencer has been in developing their profile and audience.
For instance, an Instagram influencer with more than 10,000 followers should get about 400 engagements per post (with a 4 percent average engagement ratio in 2017). If the number of engagements is much less than that, it may imply that something is not right about this profile. 

comments_ohhcouture comments_calibeachgirl310

 

Comments on @ohhcouture’s profile (real influencer) vs. @calibeachgirl310’s profile (fake influencer)

The next thing to do is examine the quality of engagement, especially the comments section. Brands should watch out for influencers whose posts have similar and generic comments. Also, try to read five to ten consecutive posts to see who is engaging with your targeted influencer. If there are just a few names who give generic compliments all the time and the comments seem to be done in a hurry or for the sake of commenting without an actual purpose of engagement, there is a high chance that you are looking at a fake influencer profile.

 

How to identify fake influencers

Based on experience with our partners as well as deep analytic research, InfluencerDB tackled the issue of fake influencers and created a complete guide to help brands spot fake influencers. The guide contains nine different steps that can mostly be done using free tools on the internet or InfluencerDB’s platform. They are: 

  1. Check the audience quality of the influencer
  2. Make sure the influencer’s follower growth is stable and consistent
  3. Check daily follower changes-- these can tell you whether the influencer has purchased followers or not. 
  4. Check the like-follower ratio to see how active the followers are.
  5. Check the Earned Media Value – the ultimate metric for defining the value of an influencer.
  6. Check video views-- these are harder to manipulate than likes and shares.
  7. Read through the comments. They should be relevant, specific and different from each other.
  8. Make sure she/he is also visible on other social media platforms? ( blog, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
  9. Check the number of Google results about her/him. 

You may want to check out this article, which specifically explains every step of the guide (with graphs and case studies). 

 

Case studies

In January 2018, The New York Times published an article about social media’s black market. The investigation revealed that many celebrities, politicians, athletes, and pundits had purchased fake followers on Twitter. In their investigation, The Times focused much of its attention on a company called Devumi. According to the article, the company owns 3.5 million automated accounts and has sold them to celebrities, such as John Leguizamo and Kathy Ireland. While some of the bots are fictional, others come from stolen identities.

Before that, an influencer marketing agency named Mediakix experimented with creating fake influencer profiles and purchased fake followers created by robots. In the end, they had four collaboration deals with companies for free gifts, compensation or both.