Under the influence

Buying 3 Million Followers on Instagram: How Far is Too Far?

Buying followers on Instagram isn’t exactly fresh news but this phenomena has been disregarded as something of lesser importance. The New York Times was the first major news outlet to cover it in depth in a January 2018 article: The Follower Factory

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying.

The New York Times

A year later New York’s attorney general announced a settlement with Devumi, the company that sold hundreds of millions of fake followers on various social media platforms.

This was the first highly publicized case of a company prosecuted for providing this type of service. Still the amount paid in the settlement, $50,000, was relatively small when compared with the revenue generated by Devumi’s 200,000 customers over the years.

A crash course on buying followers on Instagram

It’s quite simple actually, there are dozens of fake followers, fake likes and “fake whatever” providers. You choose the service you want, you pay and later on you’ll see, for instance, your Instagram account growing in followers. Most services will just unload a truck of them all at once into your account while others, more sophisticated ones, will inject followers by batches to arouse less suspicion.

But wait! It’s also possible to buy fake followers for someone else’s account – or – you can have bots following your account (without paying for them) because that makes bot accounts seem more legit. So, not quite simple actually.

Crash Course on Buying Followers on Instagram
Example of an actual fake followers provider price table

Taking it to an extreme

Buying followers on Instagram is a painful but quite common thing. There are people who buy a few to swell the account a little, you can buy twenty thousand, ten thousand, five thousand, something that doesn’t arouse much suspicion.”

Auron Play, Spanish Youtuber

In last May Auron Play, a very popular Spanish Youtuber with over 2 billion views on his channel, published a video titled La Mujer Del Infierno (“The Woman from Hell”).

In his video he slashes Zaida Ward, an aspiring singer, not just for her lack of talent, cringy music videos or inability to dance but also for her obviously inflated 3.6 million followers Instagram account.

This young lady, with three point six million followers, only one hundred are human beings. If we take a look at any photo we see that it has hundreds of thousands of likes, it’s very good, isn’t it? It fits a lot. If we start looking at who has given a “like” to these photos, if we look at the list of people who have liked it, we see that it is full of accounts from Saudi Arabia with only one follower, that is, a ton of bots.

Auron Play, Spanish Youtuber

Auron proceeds to fundament his findings about the fake following by comparing her Instagram posts performance with the number of times Zaida’s music was played on Spotify. The numbers don’t match. He also uncovers some posts where, he claims, the singer’s forgot to buy likes because they drop from an average of 100,000 likes to about 100.

If we look further at her Instagram’s feed we find a video and here it seems that, well, she had an oversight, she forgot to buy likes. One hundred and nineteen “likes”, that is, from one photo to another you have gone from having a hundred thousand to having a hundred likes. Congratulations!

Auron Play, Spanish Youtuber

Double checking Zaida Ward Instagram account

We’ve analysed Zaida’s account using Primetag proprietary machine learning algorithms with data gathered and processed between the 11th and 25th of June, 2019.

From the total only 11.7% were flagged as regular Instagram users, still, a number above than the mere “one hundred human beings” as stated by Auron Play. The remaining followers are businesses (0.6%) and influencers (0.4%).

Zaida Ward's Instagram Account Analysis By Primetag
The report’s results were achieved by analysing a statistically significant sample of @zaida_ward followers on Instagram

Buying followers on Instagram and the relevance of poor quality content

There’s a direct correlation between poor quality content production and the fake followers phenomena. Likes, comments and followers act as a social proof and validate that someone has an important message to share with the world. Without them an account seems irrelevant. Social media users as well as brands and marketers should make an effort to look beyond those metrics and evaluate if the content is authentic and relevant, even if it seems to be enjoyed by a lot of people.

“Never in my life I had seen someone buying three million bots”

Auron Plays’ statement is related with an extreme case that describes how this underground industry works. It has all the ingredients – an aspiring performer, an immense drive towards recognition and social validation through big numbers on social media. In an era of fake news and alternative truths the 3.6 million followers account becomes real, it mimics not only the reality that Zaida’s want to see but also the reality that many of us believe when using social media networks.

Tips and techniques to spot accounts with fake activity

Now that we had enough moaning, whining and philosophical drifts here’s a list of things that you should pay attention to when looking at social media accounts.

1.Check the follower to like / comments ratio
If an account has many followers but a very low engagement (below 0.5%) then something is wrong.
2.Check for posts inconsistency
Like Auron mentioned in his video it’s not normal if, from one content to another, you go from having a hundred thousand likes to having just a couple hundred.
3.Click to see who are the followers
A quick look can give a hint on the type of followers. On Zaida’s account Auron spotted a ton of accounts from Saudi Arabia. A huge number of followers from the Middle East, Pakistan or the Philippines, for instance, are usually a red flag.
4.Check who liked and commented
As mentioned before the same logic applies here. You should also be suspicious if you find random comments, spam, or just emojis on the comment box.
There are exceptions obviously, like Cristiano Ronaldo’s account, which organically attracts not only followers from every part of the world but also all types of bots.
5.Take a look at “Date joined”
On Instagram you can check “About this account” and take a look at “Date joined”. If the account was recently created but already has a massive following, than this might signal that something is wrong.

Hope you find these tips useful to uncover an account that has resorted to buying followers on Instagram. If you know any other cases like Zaida Ward feel free to share them with me, you can find my contact below.

Primetag is striving to shape a sustainable industry

Primetag is striving to shape a professional and sustainable industry where influencers can build not only an authentic and honest relationship with their followers but also collaborate in a professional way with brands and other partners.

We are turning this vision into action. Last June Primetag promoted the #realfollowers event in Barcelona where several representatives of the influence marketing industry joined us to discuss the steps needed towards the professionalization of the industry.


I am a communication designer with experience in sales and e-commerce. At Primetag, I am currently helping build a scalable SaaS business model – which aims to connect brands and influencers – and, in the process, develop a new industry.

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