Theater of Cruelty

Cheating and deception on Instagram

#followme – Why fake accounts dominate Instagram
Regissør: Nicolaas Veul

FALSE FOLLOWERS / Everyone is fooling everyone on Instagram. Phenomena such as false followers and false comments are an essential part of an ever-growing black economy. No one knows what is real.


Instagram should be the medium of the moment where you shared fun, sad, fine and not least numerous selfies with and without filters at the moment something happened. Much of what is posted today has very little momentum, but is post-perfected – often paid for by someone.

In 2018 there were about 100 millions false
Instagram accounts.


Dutchman Nicolaas Veul created an Instagram account in 2014 and had almost 5000 followers before he made followme documentary. "Everyone" has an Instagram account, even the pope, it is the (market) channel that is primarily used to promote one's self, others' products or services.

Instagram is dominated by so-called influencers (influencers, influencers, bloggers) like 19 year old Oliver. He spends his days posting photos of himself wearing fashion clothes. How important or important you are is continuously measured in number likes and followers, and for an influencer it's about building oneself as a brand. For some, this becomes an all-consuming part of everyday life, where the Instagram account needs to be constantly updated to keep the brand alive.

In the claws of the algorithm

Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, and both platforms are constantly changing their algorithms and services. The algorithms determine your visibility – how many people find you and your posts, to put it simply. Oliver got 150 new followers a week. But after another algorithm update, users became the most followers and most likes given priority, and Oliver got fewer new followers. What happens to those who haven't become superstars on Instagram? They disappear in the crowd, or have to buy themselves visibility.

Scheduled spontaneously

One picture a day is Oliver's goal. It may sound like a small job, but there is a lot of planning ahead. Oliver gets the help of a photographer. A relaxed pose in an outdoor cafe must be etched several times. "It's not spontaneous enough," Oliver says, completely without irony. The influencer and the photographer sit together afterwards and browse the pictures. They agree on the best, most natural and spontaneous from the directed scene. Then the image is retouched, Oliver gets glossier lips and is finally ready for Instagram.

He hopes to be discovered by an IMA – Internet Marketing Agency. Marit (22) works in an IMA so-called Influencing Manager. Her job is to make sure that the right influencers promote the products of the customers so that they reach the younger target groups. Traditional advertising has been replaced by influencers and there is a lot of money involved.

#followme – Why fake accounts dominate Instagram Director Nicolaas Veul VPRO

To succeed as an influencer, you must have many followers. Followers can be purchased, or you can join automated networks where people like and follow each other. Veul gets in touch with a seller of Instagram accounts. 10 followers only cost ridiculous 000 euros. "The followers are international," replies the 35-year-old (!) Seller, who won't tell how many such accounts he has sold. Veul buys an account, and it has 15 followers from all over the world. Some look genuine, others suspect, and some profiles are by very young users.

Social media management

Another anonymous salesman tells Veul that he is a big player in what he calls social media management. His job is to make people famous on Instagram. "With a million followers, a fashion blogger can go to H&M and ask for a sponsorship deal," says the salesman. The problem is that the consequences are false. You get 10 "followers" who are data-generated profiles. A slightly better variant is cloned profiles, where your profile picture is stolen together with your biography and becomes a new user. The profiles are made in server farms in India, so-called click farms. The term is from the "old days" when you paid for clicks and a human actually sat and clicked feverishly on the other side of the globe. Now effective software arranges a "boost" for your Instagram account. The seller demonstrates how quickly the director gets several thousand likes on a picture. "Hollywood stars with 20 million followers can buy 5 million new followers," says the seller. And isn't it enough for further fame, he buys articles on websites like BuzzFeed where the celebrity's name is mentioned.

The seller makes good money at the server farm in India, which spits out thousands of purchased likes in a few seconds.

Everyone makes money

The company Dove speech lives by revealing fake followers, so customers like Mercedes, Universal and Starbucks don't waste their money on influencers with many fake followers. Through extensive analysis, fake accounts can be revealed. Rapid growth in followers is a typical way of revealing it, geography another.

Also, the really big Instagram stars have fake users, says Mike at Dovetale. They show the analysis of Katy Perry's account, where almost 20 percent of the followers are false. That's a staggering 14 million "people". In 2018, there were about 100 million fake Instagram accounts, says Vaul. If you really want to, you can have false followers without being detected, says the seller. He explains that they have access to millions of real users' account information, users who have often bought followers themselves, and that they can manipulate these accounts. "This is impossible to detect," admits Mike Schmidt at Dovetale as they explain the seller's methods.

The company Dovetale shows the analysis of how many false followers celebrity Katy Perry has. When Mike Schmidt is explained to the anonymous seller's methods, he admits that this is impossible to detect.

What is false and what is real? It's almost impossible to say, because even false, positive comments from real people can be bought, like via Comment in Russia, led by Daddy Dima (Dimitri). To get comments on your (or your customers') photos, you must comment on other people's photos. 100 are included in Commenter, the number of buyers is unknown. Procter & Gamble has withdrawn millions of dollars that were intended to be spent on Instagram advertising, because they are not sure that the ads will reach the right ones – ects – the users.

"If you want to be someone on Instagram, you can just pay for it."

The consequences

#followme – Daddy Dima has no problem being a front figure for the Commenter service.

The documentary reveals what happens in the scenes, but is not as concerned about the consequences or the significance that so many are sickly concerned about the number of followers and likes. Journalist and director Veul is most surprised and laughable throughout the film, and only reacts with surprise when the seller tells that even children in the Netherlands buy followers, which parents have to pay for.

Instagram won't comment, though Veul makes several attempts. The film had needed a statement from them. It was Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook, Instagram) himself who said they gave people "Power to share, making the world more transparent".

The anonymous salesman is unscrupulous and admits without shame that he has become a millionaire manipulating Instagram. "There will be a new platform next year, I'm the first person there," he says confidently.

Everyone is fooling everyone on Instagram. The only thing that is certain is that someone is making money from you. "People want to look better than they are, maybe that's a problem," says Daddy Dima.

The Municipality of Oslo buys climate jerseys from influencers

Right after Ny Tid went to press, the news came that Oslo Municipality has bought positive climate coverage for one million kroner. The money is distributed to four influencers, according to Nettavisen. Through a public relations agency, $ 998.000 will be spent on Instagram posts and Youtube videos, including from Martine Lunde (23) known from TV shows Paradise Hotel og Skal vi danse.

How to reveal fake followers on Instagram?

Detecting false followers (profiles) can be easy. Samples from bloggers Sophie Elise and Vegard Harm showed that they also have false followers (see pictures of follower profiles). Followers like these examples, where there is a lack of profile picture and biography, are typical of fake profiles – ones that are often data-generated. One characteristic is that such profiles many follow, but have few followers themselves and zero or little content. Like the movie #followme reveals, large server farms can generate thousands of such fake profiles.

Sometimes a regular user is stolen (you clone a real profile) and you become more diligent with the fake user. Such are difficult to detect.

How do you see that an Instagram user has gained many fake followers? A typical sign is a sudden and sharp increase in the number of followers. By checking the influencer's Instagram history, one can see sudden "jumps" in the basket of followers, rather than a steady rise. We show an example of such a curve below, from a random Norwegian blogger. Sometimes a sharp increase in followers can be completely innocent, the Instagram user may have been in the media or commented differently, giving them many new followers overnight. Other times you have been paid to get x number of followers – which, even if they are false, makes a good impression as long as no one is watching closely.

#Follow me is the movie of the month – watch it here!

Iril Kolle
Iril Kolle
Freelance journalist, translator and graphic designer.

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