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One day, Rajeev, an advertising executive, received a message from an international number claiming to be working for Ogilvy HR. The message proposed liking and subscribing to YouTube videos, promising Rajeev earnings ranging from Rs 4,000 to Rs 10,000 per day in return.

This incident is merely a snapshot of the countless messages circulating worldwide. These messages originate from companies peddling followers and engagement on social media, contributing to a vast network of agencies and vendors earning significant sums globally.

Through a basic Google search, one can easily discover vendors and agencies offering not only fake followers but also engagement. Mind it, this business model is not illegal but is a violation of Instagram and YouTube’s terms and services.

Kalyan Kumar

Kalyan Kumar, Co-Founder, KlugKlug India, said, “You can pay as little as $0.59 to get thousands of likes on multiple online sites providing such services. One can upload an Excel or a CSV sheet with what kind of comments you want, and it will start replicating those along with emojis and similar content.”

Vipasha Joshi

Vipasha Joshi, an independent consultant specialising in the creator economy, expressed, "While I cannot speak definitively about YouTube, I have observed the prevalence of fake engagement practices on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Numerous content creators have audiences that bear no connection to their content. In a past role at an organisation focused on creators, we were often approached by vendors and agencies suggesting the purchase of fake engagements. These entities even offered varying rates based on the influence level of the creators involved."

The prevalence of purchasing fake followers is notable within the influencer community, a fact well-known to marketers. However, when contacted marketers, a surprising number of them were unfamiliar with the deceptive practice of acquiring fake engagement.

"Marketers often underestimate the impact of fake engagement, attributing it to only 5–15% of influencer marketing issues. However, it's crucial to recognise that fake engagement accounts for a much more significant 50–60% of challenges within the influencer marketing ecosystem," Kumar emphasised.

He revealed that India stands as the primary source of bots distributed by companies engaged in the sale of fake engagement and followers. “According to KlugKlug data, India is the largest buyer of spurious likes and comments, and 57–60% of Indian influencers have spurious followers,” he added.

Throughout this entire process, it is not the agencies or influencers that bear the brunt, but rather the brands that end up losing substantial amounts of money by collaborating with influencers sporting fake engagement.

"Why should an influencer, boasting 2 million followers with an 80% fake following, secure a brand collaboration and command a higher fee compared to an influencer with 1 million followers and a 70–80% genuine audience? The latter actually reaches three times as many real individuals as the seemingly larger influencer," Kumar said.

For context, the projected total spending on influencer marketing in India is anticipated to reach around Rs 2,200 crore by 2025. As per Kumar, brands end up wasting 36% of their influencer marketing budget due to these fake followers and engagement menaces.

Kunal Sawant

However, Kunal Sawant, Business Head at Goat, GroupM India, noted a shift in brand awareness regarding the fake engagement issue. "Brands are now seeking a deeper understanding of meaningful engagement. The conversation has evolved beyond merely stating a campaign's 4% engagement, with a more nuanced focus on comprehending meaningful engagements. For example, brands now want to know from which demographics a particular influencer’s engagement is coming," he emphasised.

Expanding further, Kumar said that the sophistication of companies peddling fake followers and engagement is evident as they seamlessly provide automatic replenishment by monitoring creators' posts. He said, “Users can customise the pace and demographics of fake engagement, allowing, for instance, an influencer in America to specifically purchase engagement from the same region."

These agencies not only dispatch pitches via emails and social media but have gone to the extent of sending representatives in person to creator summits to present their sales proposals directly. Joshi noted, "Several smaller creators have shared instances of encountering such agents at creator summits, who pledge to enhance their engagement by 30% in exchange for a payment of Rs 40,000."

Countering Joshi’s point, Kumar said that it couldn’t be true, as none of these companies would want to have in-person connections or want to be traced.

Joshi further explained that many fake engagement providers operate with call centre-like structures, employing real individuals to subscribe to and comment on creators' content. She highlighted, "Social media platforms allocate funds to creators once they reach specific follower and engagement thresholds. In such cases, if a content creator can pay a modest amount to quickly reach the required number and unlock additional earnings, it becomes an attractive proposition. Even when platforms detect irregularities, these providers adapt by altering their approaches."

Influencers employ another deceptive tactic for fake engagement known as 'Instagram podding.' This involves a collective of up to 32 influencers participating in a single Direct Message (DM) group on Instagram. When one member posts content, they share it with the group via DM, prompting everyone in the group to like and comment on the post. Frequently, these influencers participate in multiple Instagram 'pods,' rapidly accumulating numerous comments on their posts.

In many instances, influencers turn to deceptive engagement practices due to the common occurrence of brands withholding payment when the generated engagement falls short.

"Indian brands, in particular, tend to delay payments, and they may even withhold compensation if they perceive the engagement to be subpar. This might be a motivating factor for influencers who resort to such tactics, believing that generating artificial engagement can not only secure future collaborations but also ensure timely payment," remarked Joshi.

Several years ago, YouTube and Meta introduced funds to enable creators to establish shops on their platforms. Initially, brands compensated creators based on click-throughs. However, this click-through model became unsustainable as some creators began falsifying click-throughs. Consequently, these shops have evolved to operate as affiliate marketing channels, wherein brands now remunerate creators solely for actual sales.

Numerous influencer-tech platforms assert their ability to assist brands in combating the issue of fake engagement, but how reliable is their accuracy?

Given the ongoing limitations imposed by social media platforms on API access for third-party sites, a considerable number of these platforms struggle to obtain truly accurate data.

Sawant mentioned that he hasn't encountered tech platforms capable of effectively addressing the engagement issue. "While one can analyse and extrapolate data to assess the authenticity of an influencer, I'm uncertain if there's any standalone technology capable of accomplishing that," he remarked.

However, Kumar emphasised that with the KlugKlug technology, one can effectively scrutinise the origins of influencers' engagement. "In India, it's not just the major influencers; numerous mid-sized and smaller influencers are also resorting to buying fake engagement. The likes are originating from countries spanning Africa to Brazil, Indonesia, and cities worldwide."

Meta is not very transparent in sharing creators’ data with third parties. “Only a few companies have access to Meta creators’ data after buying the license for a huge fee,” added Joshi.

While Meta and YouTube occasionally introduce guidelines to combat the issue of fake engagement, it is not their primary focus. “Periodically, they may purge accounts, but their main priorities revolve around addressing concerns such as misinformation, brand safety, salience, and revenue,” said Kumar.

Sawant underscored that there is a lack of scrutiny directed towards the platforms, which, in a sense, act as pseudo-owners of the entire problem since YouTube and Meta ultimately handle the distribution.

Sawant proposes that one reason platforms are not giving priority to the fake engagement issue is the absence of direct earnings during brand partnerships with creators.

Joshi added that Instagram and Facebook appear indifferent to the engagement issue since, ultimately, it contributes to their overall metrics.

On the other hand, Google has updated its policy regarding fake engagement. Its blog reads, “YouTube doesn’t allow anything that artificially increases the number of views, likes, comments, or other metrics either by using automatic systems or serving up videos to unsuspecting viewers. Also, content that solely exists to incentivise viewers for engagement (views, likes, comments, etc) is prohibited.”

Having said that, Kumar and his influencer-tech company don’t completely rely on social media APIs. Explaining how they go about checking the authenticity of influencers and audience insights, he said, “We are one of the only tech platforms that gives you engagement data across the globe. We have social authorisation from influencers across the world, who allow us to look at their timely, temporary anonymised data to check their audience profile. Through machine learning, we can make predictions. The algorithms continue learning and improving in their predictions.”