Guest post by Marie-Aime Cochet & Luca Teres Loytved

Influencer Law Clinic series

12/10/20204 min read

Nowadays, the prominent role social media has in our society cannot be denied, plenty of people define themselves through their presence online. Social media has become remarkably important, so that it is not unusual anymore for an individual to gain money through monetized content on any given platform. Some can even rely and are dependent on social media to entirely secure their livelihood. Unsurprisingly therefore, is the desire for a large number of followers. A recent study has shown that up to 49% of Kourtney Kardashian’s Instagram followers are fake followers. This can partially be explained by the ever-existing need of influencers to gain more and more followers. Instagram alone has over 1 billion active users, making it one of the most used and well-known social media platforms to have ever existed. Hence, the desire of influencers to gain more attention within the platform is also growing and as such, influencers among others will go to great lengths to become more noticeable.

This strive has resulted in influencers to pursue an easy way to gain attention by buying fake followers from the web. We, more specifically, will focus on the role of the dark web in those circumstances. Arguably, this matter would not be something usually associated with the dark web and black-market sites. Given the nature of the dark web and the fact that buyers, as well as vendors, can hide their identity behind a veil of anonymity, black markets are most often turned to in order to purchase anything obviously illegal. Think of narcotics, weaponry and counterfeit products. That being said, buying fake likes or fake followers form the dark web has now become as easy as buying from Amazon with hundreds or thousands of followers being added to one’s account overnight. Digging deeper into what the dark web offers concerning fake followers. The offers are countless and concern all imaginable social-media platforms, going from fake twitter accounts to fake Instagram followers. The newly existing ‘asean’ market offers thousands of digital goods such as fake followers or likes packs, all varying in numbers and sophistication.

Let us paint a picture of some of the listings on ‘asean’ market. For example, 50.000 followers can be bought for 350$. Through the same vendor SocialMedia, 100 followers can be bought for as little as 1$. To keep the appearance of an account at least relatively legit on the surface, the follower – like ratio should somewhat correspond to each other. So, next to followers, a couple of dollars can also get you likes on your Instagram posts. Again, SocialMedia has a listing tailored to this, offering 50.000 likes for 150$, while 100 likes can be purchased for 0.40$. However, we may wonder what is entailed in such an offer and how does it materialize into one’s account? The concerned offer includes a 100 Instagram likes alongside a ‘Lifetime Warranty’ with no substantial explanation of the latter’s meaning. The offer also abstractly describes how to add those likes to a specific profile. Indeed, the influencer wanting to buy that package would have to provide a link to their profile which would have to remain public in order to gain the fake followers/ likes. No further specificity or software is included in such an offer; however other products within that same dark web market allows for influencers to choose a Fake Instagram Followers/ Likes package which includes a software allowing for auto-likes, auto-story views and more. SocialMedia also sells an Instagram bot with which you can auto-follow or unfollow. In its description, it claims to operate with a random time delay setting, promising that this will keep the account that employs the bot under the radar to avoid being flagged by Instagram for spamming. In the same vein, in order to increase an account’s chances to land on the explore page on Instagram, listings are also offered for ‘high quality likes’.

These claim to be of high quality because all the accounts that are being used to like the posts will have more than 10k followers. 1000 high quality likes cost 6$. However, buying fake followers is not permitted on the Instagram platform and as such when the appearance of fake followers is noticeable, the platform’s system may automatically delete those fake accounts. One way of noticing if an influencer is using or has bought fake followers, is to observe the followers – like ratio. If an influencer has 2+ millions of followers on their Instagram account but their posts only get a few thousands likes, then it is quite probable that they are using fake followers. Nonetheless, having numerous followers makes the account more noticeable within the platform and therefore more attractive to active users who may end up following them. As such, the practice of buying fake followers has reached an all-time high in the past few years as every influencer wants to become more famous than their counterparts.Indeed, it has become increasingly noticeable that fake follower packs sold on the dark web are becoming more sophisticated with time as to not be detectable by the platform’s system. To that effect, it is now possible for an influencer to buy a pack of fake followers or likes within which a software will allow for auto-comments, auto-view stories and more as previously mentioned. Therefore ‘tricking’ the social media platform into believing that those followers are real accounts and not Insta bots.Begging to wonder how social media platforms, such as Instagram will deal with such sophisticated means in the future if their platforms are not capable of discerning active/ real users from fake users. We may also ponder at the meaning of notoriety within social platforms. Shall we only pay attention to the number of followers one may have or shall we look deeper into the actual ‘influence’ one’s social media presence has on the platform? All of the aforementioned facts merely show what means influencers are ready to wield to become more famous; even if some of those means are illegal and may potentially tarnish their reputation and ‘influence’.

For further information, see: NATO StratCom COE, ‘The black market for social media manipulation’.