As Bots Flourish on Instagram, Companies Form to Fight Them

Minh Uong/The New York Times

In a sunny office in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, Mike Schmidt spends his time ferreting out fake Instagram accounts.

Some are obvious, like the one that had never posted a photo and lacked a profile picture yet followed about 7,500 accounts — the maximum allowed by the social media site. Others are trickier. Mr. Schmidt had to scroll down a little on an account with the name @ailebnoblk before the same stock image of a car showed up three times in a row, a clue that there was no real person behind the profile.

The users who uploaded the same stock image of a car did not respond to messages on Instagram.

“The amount of bot activity that’s happening on these platforms is pretty insane,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Just the amount of new accounts and times these folks are liking and commenting with spam and positive comments and happy-face emojis.”

Dovetale, a four-person software company Mr. Schmidt co-founded in 2016, has devised a range of tactics to identify large numbers of fake accounts that follow popular Instagram personalities. It then packages that information for marketers, who are increasingly skeptical of the audience numbers that often determine how much money social media stars can command from advertisers.

Marketers are flocking to businesses like Dovetale, prompted by revelations like those in a recent investigation by The New York Times that detailed the booming industry of people buying fake followers and fraudulent engagement on Twitter and other social media sites. Some of these fake accounts, in an attempt to seem legitimate, use personal information from real people without their knowledge. That has provoked concern among brands and their agencies, which often rely on metrics like the number of followers an account has when hiring people on YouTube and Instagram to promote their products. These social media stars can often fetch thousands of dollars for one post promoting a product.

“We knew this kind of day of reckoning would come,” said Erick Schwab, the co-founder of Sylo, which vets influencers for fraud and aims to assign a numerical score to their content akin to a Nielsen rating. “We’ve gotten tons of brands, agencies, vendors emailing us, who we’ve been having conversations with for a while, but now they’re sort of like, this is being demanded.”

Krishna Subramanian, a founder of Captiv8, which connects brands with influencers, has seen a surge in requests for fraud detection from agencies. “Everyone is definitely scrambling because they don’t want to be held responsible,” he said.

The interest in such firms reflects how easy it is to fake popularity on platforms like Instagram, where bots seem to run unchecked even on accounts where people have not paid for them. While many advertisers have become aware of this, and tried to place more emphasis on content quality or favorable comments, follower numbers still tend to loom large.

“Even though brands are looking for engagement more, the actual pay and compensation that influencers are getting is still based on the follower number,” said Alivia Latimer, a photographer with about 102,000 Instagram followers. Ms. Latimer, who has worked with brands including Lush Cosmetics and Hollister, said that she charged about $1,200 for a branded post. She added that she knew people with two million followers who charge $40,000 per post.

That means new kinds of detective work are needed for brands that still want the endorsements of the young and hip online. Dovetale said it uses more than 50 metrics to…

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Peter Bordes

Exec Chairman & Founder at oneQube
Exec Chairman & Founder of oneQube the leading audience development automation platfrom. Entrepreneur, top 100 most influential angel investors in social media who loves digital innovation, social media marketing. Adventure travel and fishing junkie.
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