Life

The Story Of A Fake Instagram Star Who Was Invented To Prove A Point


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For some reason, this sells less bathing suits than that picture of a model’s back looking out of an infinity pool.

Not that long ago, my husband and I were driving in West Hollywood, and we passed Paul Smith’s Instagram famous pink walls. A crowd of people were milling around the parking lot.

“What’s going on there?” David asked. “What are they waiting in line for?”

“Oh nothing,” I said. “They’re just waiting to take pictures in front of that wall.”

“Why?”

“It’s like a famous Instagram shot.”

“Famous for what?”

“Being a spot to Instagram,” I said realizing that I was entering into a dangerous Catch-22 conversation loop. People instagram themselves in front of the Paul Smith wall because it’s famous on Instagram and it’s famous on Instagram because people instagram themselves in front of it. Where the chicken and the egg start… I really have no idea. Instagram can be a really weird place.

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🌸🌷🌺💋 #paulsmith #pinkwall

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Hold your snark for a second. There are a lot of things to love about the photo sharing app. It takes what you really love about Facebook (voyeuristically looking at people’s photos whom you haven’t spoken to in several years) and cuts out the annoying status updates and stupid article shares. You get all the cute kid, dog, and travel pictures without having to physically hold yourself back from commenting on your racist aunt’s political rants. Plus, people are pickier with Instagram. You get one or two pretty images of your best friend’s trip to Hawaii, rather than 150 pictures they took out of the side of the car.

But as Instagram has exploded in popularity, it’s changed the way we consume things, and because of that, the way we receive advertisements too. We now follow Instagram accounts the way we might follow a famous athlete or actor. We follow them on Instagram because they’re famous for being on Instagram. It’s that whole Catch-22 thing creeping up again.

Since we’ve started consuming fame through Instagram celebs — taking their advice on travel, fashion, products and the like — we’ve created a brand new market that companies are scrambling to take advantage of. Instagram has spawned the “social influencer”, a person/brand hybrid that people follow because they live an admirable lifestyle. And because of their followers and engagement, that person then makes money off of sponsorships. You love their awesome travel photos or gorgeous style — so hotels, travel companies, or clothing brands jump on board to pay the account holder to subtly reach their tens of thousands of followers. You still have actors and singers hawking products, but companies are counting on you to more easily take the fashion advice of someone whose fashion blog or Instagram account you follow. This “regular” person may be able to guide you more naturally into buying the products they rave over.

According to marketing company, Mediakix, the influencer space is now moving billions of dollars per year — and that’s huge money that advertisers and influencers alike want to get their hands on. But this new advertising comes with all sorts of ethical problems. Like making sure followers know when they are looking at a paid ad, and when they are receiving actual advice. None of us really want to feel like our Instagram feed is one long commercial. Or that someone we follow is basically walking, talking product placement.

Plus, for both companies and consumers, there’s the risk that all of it is just one big con. Because the new worry is that “Social Influencers” can and do buy comments, followers, and likes.

“We’re seeing more established influencers focus on authenticity,” Evan Asano, CEO & Founder of Mediakix told Uproxx, “but we’re also seeing lots of small micro-influencers pop up and do whatever it takes to get paid.” The problem is that companies can’t be sure who really has actual influence, and for followers, it may be hard to tell if the person in front of the camera is even real at all.

“It’s very difficult for anyone to vet all influencers especially with the growth of micro-influencers,” Asano continued. “In terms of implications, it really requires brands doing their due diligence and working with the right agencies or platforms to make sure that every dollar is being put to use.”

Mediakix was pretty certain that fooling people and brands would be incredibly easy, and is already being done quite a bit. So, (to point out just how easy it is) they did an experiment where they created two fake Instagram accounts to see if they could get brand offers. These were entirely fake accounts, but unsurprisingly….they worked.

Basically, Mediakix made up two people. One was a woman they called “Alexa Rae.” “Alexa” described herself as “Free as the ocean. Living in the golden sun.” She was a lifestyle and fashion influencer. For this account, the brand hired a model, and did a one day shoot. With that one day they were able to generate enough pictures for a couple of months.

If you’re thinking, well, that’s not entirely fake. She is a real person…just not one controlling the account. Then you should know they thought of that too, so they went even further, and created a fake traveler/photographer under the name of “Amanda Smith”. And Amanda’s photos were entirely made up of stock images (most from Unsplash). Sometimes they found stock photos with a hidden-faced blonde girl to make them appear more authentic, but all of these could be found in a basic Google search.

Next, Mediakix went about buying followers for their fake accounts. It’s about $3-$8 per 1,000 followers. Within in a couple of months, they had accumulated 30 thousand followers for one of the accounts and 50 thousand for the other — all purchased without tipping Instagram off to the scam. After that, they started buying likes and comments. It’s about $4-$9 per thousand likes and 12 cents a comment. This made the women look like they had high levels of engagement.

The brands came calling. The accounts secured four brand deals, two for each account. The deals were from a swimsuit company, a national food and beverage company, and an alcohol brand. They totaled out to a little more than $500 dollars. And while that’s not a huge amount of money, the problem is how easy it all was to do. For brands who are searching for a large market to get their ads out, and for followers, who are searching for authenticity, it makes it incredibly difficult to suss out what’s real. All it takes is a little bit of money (and some stock pictures), and you could end up buying products based on the enthusiastic recommendation of someone who doesn’t exist at all. It makes you wonder, are we looking at original pictures of a trip around the world, or a compiled account of things that are determined to look real? Is Cousin Kathy’s baby reallllllly that cute or did she photoshop that baby from a J.C. Penney ad? I mean she probably didn’t, but we should all be on the lookout (and accuse her in DMs of a fake baby. It’ll make things interesting at Thanksgiving).

The moral of the story is that we should all be on the lookout for ads and where they’re coming from. It’s super easy for “fake it ’til you make it” to go too far. Hopefully, Instagram will be able to crack down on influencers buying followers and likes, but until then, we all should be a little more careful about how much we trust the accounts we follow.

Although… maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty. Because who knows, an entirely fake human or robot might know EXACTLY what moisturizer I should be using at night to glow and look younger. C-3PO looks great for his age.

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