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Explained: The curious case of fake views, ghost followers and buying influence online

While buying followers and likes is not new in India, Badshah's involvement in this social media scam is leading to questioning of all high-profile accounts.

October 05, 2020 / 12:25 PM IST

Many found it hard to believe that Indian rapper Badshah’s song 'Paagal' last year recorded 75 million views in a day and surpassed the mark set by Korean band BTS for their video 'Biy with Luv' that had hit 74.6 million views in 24 hours in April last year.

Even YouTube had rejected the claim of the Indian rapper.

In the Indian music space, there were murmurs of Badshah benefitting from fake followers and fake views.

In July 2020, when Mumbai Police started investigating the issue of fake profiles following the complaint of Bollywood singer Bhoomi Trivedi about a fake Instagram profile posing as her official account, it brought to light the social media scam in India.

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In fact, Mumbai Police so far have investigated 20 high-profile celebrities including actors, directors, models, sports personalities, among others. Reportedly, Mumbai Police have found over 200 celebrities involved in buying fake or ghost followers.

A 2019 report by the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) revealed that actresses such as Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra are among the top Bollywood celebrities in India who have bought fake followers.

Now, the first question that comes to mind is why the need to buy followers? Aren't these celebrities famous enough?

For a song to be declared a hit, it needs at least two million views on YouTube in 24 hours; you are considered an influencer if you have millions of followers, and if you wish to be a mega influencer you need to have over five million followers but the number varies from platform to platform.

A lot of views and many followers mean more popularity and stronger influence on social media. For influencers, then be it a social media star or a film star, these metrics result in more brands showing interest in their profile which in turn results in higher value for their posts.

For example, the ICMP report pointed out that while Deepika Padukone charges over Rs 1 crore for a social media post, Priyanka Chopra charges double of Padukone at Rs 2 crore.

But who are these fake followers?

It’s a mix of man and machine. So, there is botting which is automated fake accounts or bots. On Twitter, there are three types of bots. A scheduled bot keeps posting at regular intervals like every hour in a day. A watcher bot posts messages depending on new posts on Twitter. And amplification bot follows, tweets and retweets.

Along with bots, there are real people but with a fake identity who do all that a bot does for their clients. So, companies selling fake followers get people on board to make fake profiles with fake names and random profile pictures. There are companies across the globe that are offering fake followers.

What is the cost of buying fake followers? And who are selling fake followers?

Buying fake followers doesn’t seem to be an expensive affair. A Delhi-based firm Social King offers 100 followers for Rs 250 and 20,000 followers are available for Rs 17,500. The rates seem affordable when compared to the kind of money influencers make from brands for their social media posts.

Along with fake followers, one can buy likes as well, which come at a cost of Rs 12,000 for 10,000 likes on Facebook and Rs 34,000 for 200,000 likes on Instagram. And if someone is looking to get 10,000 video views then that would cost around Rs 1,361.

There are variations in rates depending on the kind of fake followers a client expects. So, for a steady base of followers which means that these followers won’t unfollow later, the cost could start at Rs 150 for 100 followers.

When it comes to bots, low-quality followers can be bought at Rs 2,500 for 10,000 followers; the same number of mid-quality and high-quality followers come at the price of Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,500 respectively.

Like Social King, there are many companies including that are selling fake followers in India. In fact, Mumbai Police have identified 100 websites in India that are selling ghost followers.

How does the issue of ghost followers affect brands?

Brands associate with followers for engagement. But what engagement with consumers can brands expect when most of the followers an influencer has on the profile are fake? This has led many brands to wonder if spending on influencer marketing is beneficial at all.

When brands consider metrics like trending and views for the success of a campaign, it becomes difficult to gauge how effective the campaign was as we know how these metrics can be easily bought.

Hence, such metrics do not give the right impact to the brand as brands are engaging with a limited number of people. And this also means that while brands are paying huge sums to influencers for large engagements thanks to their huge follower base, brands may not be getting the right returns.

Why fake followers or fake views is a big issue for influencer marketing?

In times of COVID-19, influencer marketing has picked up pace as spends on other mediums like print and outdoor have gone down drastically. Even on TV, advertisers are cautious due to the tough times. Plus, people are online now more than ever which is giving brands to advertise a stronger reason to take the help of influencers to market their products. But the issue of fake views or followers can be a big blow to influencer marketing space which saw a 20-30 percent increase in spends during the lockdown. While connecting with an influencer, most brands look for quantity and the social media scam of buying followers tells us that a huge number of followers not necessarily mean more engagement for brands.

How to recognise fake accounts?

According to Sandeep Goyal, Chief Mentor of the Indian Institute of Human Brands (IIHB), the fake element in the follower data for politicians, television stars and TikTokers would be as high as 90 percent and 80 percent for Bollywood and cricketers.

But there are ways one can spot a fake account or a fake follower.

So watch out for----

Sudden spike in followers: A large follower base is achieved not overnight but over a period. A TikTok influencer had said in an interview to Moneycontrol that she managed to get 40,000 followers after working hard for over a year.

Check profile of followers: Recent accounts engaging with only influencers could be fake followers. Plus, their bio would also be basic.

Look out for likes and follower ratio. So, if an account has more followers and less likes, they have bought followers. Similarly, if an account has more likes and less followers, the likes were bought.

Can those buying fake likes and followers be punished?

While there is no specific law, Goyal points out that the option is to take recourse to Section 468 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with committing forgery of a document or electronic record for the purposes of cheating.

Maryam Farooqui
first published: Aug 17, 2020 06:37 pm