A Story About Instagram Follow / Unfollow Bots

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Last week I was teaching my Instagram class at a university. In this lecture I talk about bots, their (mis-)use and I try to explain why you shouldn’t work with them. After I had been ranting on for about ten minutes on how much I dislike this fake way of marketing, one of my students raised his hand: “Why do you hate these bots so much, I mean everybody is using them and they work”.

And yes, he’s right. They do work to some extent and let’s face it. A lot of people use bots to artificially enhance their social media following and often its not even frowned upon, because success online is still measured by quantity over engagement.

To be honest, it gets on my nerves. It gets on my nerves because there are about 10 profiles every week that follow and unfollow me, that click-bait-like my posts in dear hope I will follow them back. The most frustrating thing to me is that most of the time, their targeting is off. No, I don’t want your new nail polish. Although Instagram has started to block and delete bots and people using them, it is still a huge problem on the platform. If you don’t know how follow / unfollow bots work and what they are, a short Google will help you out.

Artists and musicians that I respect, or used to respect for that matter, use Instagram bots. Athletes use Instagram bots. Politicians use them. Restaurants use them (a lot). My students use them.

So, yeah. In the following, I want to show you how to spot a profile using bots and how to have a little fun by looking at their profile data. I will present two profiles that targeted me with their bot, to be fair their targeting was pretty on point. Maybe that’s why I am so disappointed that they were using bots in the first place.

As most of you probably know already, its not that difficult to spot an Instagram profile using like and /or follow / unfollow bots. But let me tell you a little story.

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to London for a conference. I am pretty active on Instagram and I like taking pictures with my iPhone. Of course, I posted some grams from my trip and used hashtags to categorise my pictures. About 1/3 of the hashtags I used were related to the city of London. Two days after I got back to Germany, I opened my Instagram and yay, I had a new follower: @cassyofficial. I thought really? Cassy?

For those of you who don’t know Cassy (she is not to be mistaken for the American R’n’B artist), she is a fairly well-known DJ that plays in some of the most prestigious clubs in the world like Panorama Bar in Berlin, Output in Brooklyn or DC-10 in Ibiza. She’s a good DJ and makes pretty decent music. I work in and around the music industry and have a background in electronic music, so of course I am familiar with Cassy and I admire what she has achieved. But I could smell the shit from a hundred miles away: there was no way she pressed that follow button on the top of my profile on purpose. I am not sure how she targeted me, but I am guessing through the hashtags related to London or through the fact that I follow two profiles that follow Cassy, Heidi and Resident Advisor. It had to have been one of the above or both.

I clicked on her profile. Here is a screenshot I took December 14th 2017 in a web browser:

Screenshot of Cassy’s profile, www.instagram.com/cassyofficial

At that point, she was following nearly 6k profiles, a first indication of Instagram bot use. Following that many people is not normal Instagram behaviour. Next, I looked at her engagement, which was somewhere between 0,5 and 2 — which for Instagram is still pretty much under average. This was the second indication: she has a fair amount of followers, but they don’t engage with her content a lot. To give Cassy the benefit of the doubt, there are people out there that actually follow 6k profiles and engage with them.

Shortly after Cassy had followed me, I checked her profile on influencer.db, a tool I can really recommend, and took a closer look at her analytics for the timespan of about 3 months. Here is a screenshot I took October 19th 2017:

Screenshot of Cassy’s follower changes taken from influencer.db

As you can see in the analytics, Cassy followed 688 profiles on October 12th and 959 profiles on October 13th (=1.647 profiles) to then unfollow 564 profiles on October 14th and 947 profiles October 15th (=1.511 profiles). Hm, interesting. This certainly doesn’t mean that she is using a follow / unfollow bot, but one could argue that this could be seen as an indication for it — especially if it happens over months and months. What you can also see in the screenshot is that she is getting a good amount of new followers, ranging from 25 to 224 a day.

Here is another screenshot I took from influencer.db on December 7th 2017 where you can see Cassy’s steady growth of followers. Of course, this doesn’t have to be due to the fact that she uses bots. I would like to direct your eyes to the little bump at the end of February and the development of her profile before and afterwards, though.

Screenshot of Cassy’s follower growth taken from influencer.db

What do you think?

I contemplated long and hard why I actually don’t like it if people use bots (on me), and there are a couple of reasons. Let’s go back to the example of Cassy. She is a prestigious DJ that plays good underground music in some of my favourite clubs and she (re)posts stuff like this, which to me is very sympathetic:

Screenshot of Cassy’s Instagram (Re-)Post, taken December 14th 2017

What I don’t understand is that if she really believes this, why is she trying to gain followers in the most unpleasant and uncreative way possible? And why does she trick potential fans into following her by trick-following them? To show promoters she is eligible for larger bookings? Because her management told her to? For fun? Doesn’t it make the users feel betrayed and disappointed?

I reached out to the press agent listed on Cassy’s website on December 7th 2017 looking for answers. I got a response, but she just asked for links to articles I had written and asked if I am including any other artists in my article. Nope, just Cassy and a random tennis player, I responded. I haven’t received a statement concerning Cassy’s use of the follow / unfollow bot and the purpose she and her team see behind the use. I will keep you updated.

Apart from looking for answers with Cassy and her team, I also wanted to raise questions towards Instagram.

I reached out to their office in Germany and got a response from a press representative. She informed me that accounts can experience a strong increase in followers without using bots. Since Cassy is a “well-known DJ from London”, as she wrote, it is not unlikely that her profile can show a faster increase of followers. Also, she sent me links to the Instagram community guidelines. I respect that Instagram is a company with hundreds of millions of clients, so they have strict PR and communication guidelines that probably come from Instagram’s strategy team in the States, so I wasn’t really expecting a more sophisticated answer. Also, you can’t expect that a press agent is familiar with the interpretation of analytics. (I really mean this, it is not ironic.)

I responded that it’s not about the increase of Cassy’s followers, but her following and then unfollowing people as discussed in my short analysis above. In my opinion, this change of users has nothing to do with Cassy being a “well-known DJ from London”.

Cassy has a verified (!!!) profile, so the questions I have for Instagram are

1) how can a profile like this get verified and
2) how can a profile like this stay verified and
3) how can a profile like this not be deleted

if it clearly has been violating the Instagram Community Guidelines for a fair amount of time? I mean, if I can access the analytics through Instagram’s API in a matter of seconds and interpret them just as fast, why hasn’t Instagram built a tool that recognizes this behavior and then acts accordingly? Or at least sends these profiles an automated warning? Is it because so many “influencers” (I hate that word) are using these bots and if they weren’t, there would be fewer profiles with a larger amount of followers and 15 year old Mary from Islington with 187 followers wouldn’t have anyone to look up to? (“I am going to have 40k followers too when I grow up.”)

I don’t know.

While Cassy’s case makes me feel a bit sad and disappointed, the next example makes me chuckle. I love tennis and follow a bunch of players and tennis-related profiles. Frederik Press seems to have directed his bot towards this topic and follows / unfollows me on a regular basis. Let’s just play the same game as above, here is a screenshot from influencer.db:

Screenshot of Frederik’s follower changes taken from inluencer.db

I am not going to do much interpretation here because if you have come this far in my story, you should know the deal.

To be fair, Frederik uses his Instagram bot with a little less aggressiveness than Cassy, which I respect. But, unlike Cassy, he seems to be purchasing comments (and maybe likes) from fake users as well. Let’s look at one of Frederik’s posts:

Screenshot of Frederik’s Instagram Post

Now, take a closer look at the people commenting. Nice abs, yeah, but those are a hell of a lot of heart-face smileys. Why don’t we click on some of these profiles? Here you go:

Frederik’s (fake) followers

Above you see four perfect examples of fake profiles on Instagram that are generated for one reason only: to be sold to people like Frederik and to fake-comment and fake-like posts.

The profiles are following several thousand people, their profiles have random pictures that were probably stolen from real accounts to make them look real as well. This is what you get when you purchase “COMMENTS BY REAL INSTAGRAM PROFILES”. Chuckle.

To conclude, I am still in high hopes that Instagram will be able to solve this problem soon. Sure, people will always try to game their social media channels and basically build a completely fake environment. Sadly enough, many people believe them. I hope the awareness of bots is increasing and the normal and honest Instagram user will be able to detect and confront profiles using bots of any kind.