Fake followers on social media - Who has the most and why is it a problem?

Social media is all about numbers. You can immediately tell if a social media account is popular based on the number of followers it has or the number of likes or shares the content gets.

However, everyone knows that not everything you see on social media is always as it seems.

Edited photos, misleading news, and staged videos are everywhere, but maybe it’s the likes, shares, and followers we should be more skeptical of.

Social media influencers who get paid to promote products in their content are only able to do so because of the level of engagement and reach they have. Someone with a massive following online who can sway public opinion or popularize a product is a powerful marketing tool, and they can get paid big money for it. A single post on social media from a popular influencer can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars. This means the more popular you are online, the more money you can make. Influencers and celebrities are turning their followers and likes into dollars and cents.

This economy of influence online has incentivized an epidemic of fake followers (accounts not tied to real people) to appear, and some of the most popular accounts online are a part of it.

Using special tools to assess follower counts and audience credibility, this article from All Home Connections listed the top 20 accounts that they estimated had the most fake followers on Instagram and Twitter, and you might be surprised who made the list.

Celebrities and influencers with the most fake followers on InstagramCelebrities and influencers with the most fake followers on Instagram

From popular musicians to professional athletes, the list is full of celebrities who already have major followings. So why do they need fake followers?

For Kourtney Kardashian in the number one spot, fake followers could help her secure brand deals, get paid to promote a product, or keep up with the followings of her sisters, who all happened to make the list as well.

Katy Perry and the other musicians on the list might need fake followers to portray themselves as more popular or relevant while they promote a new song or album. Athletes and other celebrities might use their metrics to negotiate contracts or to spark interest from a third party. Some of it might just be vanity. After all, who doesn’t feel good after getting an influx of followers and engagement?

While having nearly a third of your Instagram followers categorized as fake might seem like a lot, it’s nothing compared to the ratio of fake and real followers on Twitter.

Celebrities and influencers with the most fake followers on Twitter

Although some of the top spots are different on this list, both lists share a lot of the same names. We can only speculate about the reasons why these accounts have the amount of fake followers that they seem to have, but what we do know is that it might actually be hurting more than it helps.

All Home Connections also reported that finding out how many fake followers a celebrity has drastically changes the perception people have of them. A survey conducted for the article found that 80% of respondents said they would “view their favorite online personality differently if they had fake followers,” and 75% said their opinion would be negatively affected.

When it comes to using fake followers to make money, 75% of those surveyed said they would stop buying the products promoted by an influencer with bought followers, and 83% said the influencer’s income should change to reflect the real followers on their account. These stats clearly show that there is some level of trust involved in these online interactions, and having fake followers is a breach of that trust that hurts an influencer’s ability to endorse or promote products in a legitimate way.

Having fake followers affects how major brands and advertisers view influencer marketing as well. Companies won’t want to spend their marketing budgets on influencer marketing if they can’t confirm that those promoted posts will actually reach real people.

NPR reported on a statement from Unilever's chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, after Twitter began to remove fake accounts from the platform.

"Our digital ecosystem is being polluted by a growing number of fake user accounts, so Twitter's commitment to cleaning up the digital space should be welcomed wholeheartedly by everyone, from users of the platforms, to creators and advertisers,” Weed said. “People having an artificially inflated follower count made up of bots and redundant accounts is at best deceiving and at worst, fraud. It serves no one and undermines trust in the entire system."

If users, advertisers, and the platforms are all against fake followers, why do they still exist?

A report prepared by the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence concluded that “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube are still failing to adequately counter inauthentic behaviour on their platforms” after conducting studies on fake accounts for two years. Even after flagging accounts as fake, NATO found that 95% of the reported accounts are still active online three weeks later. It seems like even with the help of users policing bots and fake accounts, being able to quickly review flagged accounts is still difficult.

To make things more complicated, removing fake accounts on these platforms isn’t always financially beneficial for the company.

Removing millions of fake accounts to fight social media fraud doesn’t look good for user growth metrics, which, among other factors, was something that caused Facebook stock to plummet and erased about $3 billion in Twitter’s market value in 2018.

For now, it seems like buying and selling followers will continue to be a part of the social media ecosystem as these platforms attempt to crack down on fake accounts and brands try to assess whether they’ll be reaching real people if they put their money behind an influencer marketing campaign. If you’d like to do some investigating on your own, there are tools online that can help you find out if the accounts you follow have fake followers, and if you look in the right places, you could probably find out where to find some fake followers of your own.
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