Fake news. Fake followers. Fake engagement. Is everything on the internet fake nowadays?

It seems like our world is becoming more and more inauthentic, and it’s becoming harder to determine who and what to trust.

It may come as no surprise that one of the industries commonly named as a scapegoat for encouraging these false realities is of course, the ubiquitous influencer marketing world. A Media Kix survey found that 50% of marketers named spotting fake followers as the primary challenge for influencer marketing in 2019 and other studies have found similar concerns.

Of course, this isn’t without reason, with anyone being able to buy followers (some sites offer 10k followers for the disturbingly little price of $70) it seems reasonable that this topic is heavily debated as it’s always on the rise.

If you’re an influencer who’s getting a pay check in consideration of your follower count, it’s almost too tempting to up your numbers with one click, rather that the hard grind of community management of gaining loyalty with your followers.

How to pick out foul play in the industry

Firstly, we need to determine the areas that can be fabricated on social platforms, these include fake followers and fake engagement. Often, these two things are talked about interchangeably but are in fact separate and are usually bought separately.

Fake engagement can be spotted in a few subtle ways, and once you know what to look out for, it becomes obvious. An engagement rate of over 10%, comments consisting of one word or an emoji or a generic comment that lacks substance, for example ‘congrats’ or ‘good job’ can all indicate bought engagement. More clues include likes that come from profiles that have never posted, lack a profile picture and bio, or if the number of likes is disproportionate to the comments.This is typically a sign of bought engagement.

When considering fake followers, it’s important to look at the engagement rate. If an influencer is posting regular, quality content and keeping up with community management and has an engagement rate of lower that 2%--this should ring alarm bells, as they’re probably buying followers.

Taking into account all of the above, marketers must remember that although these are indications of foul play, there are exceptions.

To AI or not to AI?

If you work in influencer marketing, you’ve probably been approached by a company offering systems that can take the stress away of potentially signing influencers with bought followers. These AI tools can determine suspicious activity that can indicate fake followers, such as audience geography, engagement rates and sudden increases in following.

These tools offer to take one less thing off your hands and while it can be tempting to rely on AI to determine fake activity, we still think that human detection is the strongest and most reliable means to detect and avoid fake followers and engagement. This is because, often, first impressions, which is essentially what these AI tools offer, are not always correct.

For instance, a dramatic climb in followers can be a sign of bought followers, but it can also be attributed to other things, such as a life event of the influencer or a contest that they may be holding. In other instances, engagement rates could be low, not necessarily because you’ve bought engagement, but because of a niche influencer, specialising in something obscure.

That being said, the signs of alarm detected by AI can be useful to know, but these signs should then be analysed by a human to scrutinise any findings.

Marketers using AI tools that can help find influencers should also be used within reason. A machine may be able to assess an influencers performance, but it can’t assess the type of audience an influencer has or whether or not they’re the perfect brand match for your campaign.

That’s why handpicking influencers is the best means to find not only the best person for the job, by gaining a deeper understanding of the influencer, but it can also aid in combating potential fake followers and engagement.

What’s next?

Social media giants Facebook and Instagram have started to crack down on these problems and have recently sued several companies in China for selling fake profiles and likes. So it does seem that change is on the horizon, but at the same time, tracking fraudulent activity in this way is so hard to regulate.

As long as there is awareness from social media platforms and influencer marketers when searching for influencers, then fake followers and engagement can be avoided and together we can tackle the misrepresentation of the influencer industry as an arena for fraudulent activity.