Instagram influencers: A hidden black market

The rise of social media has enabled a new breed of digital users to emerge where mainly millennials, some now millionaires, are cashing in on posting content online. But this has allowed a black market to emanate  where Instagram influencers are now faking their popularity to stay ahead of competitors.

For years, brands have been using celebrities to promote their products and services to a global audience. But with the rise of social media there has since been a new way for companies to amplify their message and get their name out there.

An Instagram influencer is a social media ‘star’ who has monetised their following by posting pictures and endorsing brands, which has meant there is less incentive for companies to spend in excess of £10,000 for a double page spread in a glossy magazine.

In some cases, these influencers are making over 7 figures a year, with one of the most famous British influencers, Zoella, having a reported net worth of £2.5 million.

A post shared by Zoe Sugg (@zoella) on

According to marketing company Mediakix, total advertiser spending on Instagram influencers in 2017 amounted to almost £750 million, with this figure projected to double by 2019.

Karen Gill, social campaign’s manager at Sainsbury’s says: “People who have up to 40,000 followers and an engagement rate of at least 3 per cent will earn around £2,500 for a campaign which would usually be about 2 months.”

This has meant that the market has become oversaturated with people wanting to make a career out of Instagram, enabling a seedy underbelly of suspicious activity to emerge which has taken the influencer world by storm.

“Everyone is thinking, I want to be a blogger, I want to be an influencer but some people just aren’t patient enough to grow their following organically and therefore take shortcuts,”  says blogger and influencer, Jordan Bunker.

A post shared by Jordan Bunker (@jordanbunker) on

A “black market” has developed, he says, where people have been using Instagram bots, buying likes, followers and using comment pods to stay ahead of competitors.

Bunker says: “There is a massive pressure within the industry to have the biggest following you can get. It’s driven into you from day one.

“It’s a vicious circle which everyone gets so competitive about.”

The digital world now allows brands to reach an audience instantly, with Instagram having over 800 million monthly users as of September 2017, an increase of around 700 million in just over five years.

Number of monthly active users on Instagram from January 2013 to September 2017 (Source; Instagram; TechCrunch - Statista 2018)

Number of monthly active users on Instagram from January 2013 to September 2017
(Source; Instagram; TechCrunch – Statista 2018)

Nik Speller, social influencer manager at Socialyse – a global social media agency – says: “People are unaware of Instagram frauds both inside and outside the industry.”

Some now believe that Instagram bots cause misguided expectations for marketers on how many people they can reach through influencers.

Speller adds: ”I felt like I kept getting tripped up by people using bots.

“I would be putting forward suggestions to clients for influencers to work with and they were coming back to me and saying why not this person, why not this person, and I was saying because they use bots.”

An Instagram bot is a robotic file that will automatically follow and like and comment on people’s content on an Instagram account without any necessary manual work.

But earlier this month, Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer announced that Instagram would be shutting down existing application programming interface (API).

The development means that third-parties can no longer access follower lists, relationships information, see which posts users have ‘liked’ or receive notifications when media is posted; meaning people can no longer use ‘bots’ to follow accounts, and like and comment on Instagram posts.

But despite this recent clampdown, people are still able to use other avenues to falsely inflate their following, meaning there is still suspicious activity occurring.

Karen Gill says: “People will continue to use different tricks to keep ahead of the game so that they can achieve their career aspiration of being self-employed and being paid lots of money to post pretty pictures.”

Although brands and advertisers are starting to wise up to these problems, there is still a huge emphasis on the number of followers an influencer has to have in order for a brand to work with them.

Gill adds: “One of our values at Sainsbury’s is that we treat every pound as our own.

“I’m not massively interested in the number of followers influencers have, I’m more interested in the engagement rate.

“I prefer someone who has 2,000 followers and gets 20 to 40 comments on their post, than someone who has 50,000 followers but only has a few comments.

“There are some great people out there who have worked their arses off and grown their following organically but there are also those who cheat the system.”

On websites such as Buzzoid, it takes minutes to purchase Instagram followers with 5000 costing just $39.99.

Food and travel blogger, Kacie Morgan, says: “I have been blogging for eight years and I see newer bloggers coming out of nowhere who are blatantly using bots or doing something dodgy.

“Although you don’t want to accuse anybody, a lot of the time these people end up getting work that I could potentially be getting so it’s really annoying for me.”

An Instagram spokesperson said: “We are committed to keeping activity on Instagram authentic.

“In addition to technical measures, we pursue legal enforcement against services that violate our terms of use.”

Feature Image – Wikimedia Commons 

Thomas Mackie