To be appreciated and respected by our peers is a human need, and we put a lot of time into pursuing this goal. Popularity and influence have traditionally been difficult things to measure, but social media introduced a variety of metrics that seemed to indicate prestige – our numbers of friends, followers, views, comments and likes. These numbers could lead to opportunities and rewards in the real world. But that system can be easily manipulated, with everything from views on YouTube to followers on Instagram susceptible to fakery.
The ability of people and businesses to buy the illusion of success is a sign of a broken system, and some social media platforms are now stepping up measures to combat the problem. Beginning this week, Instagram stated that it will ban "inauthentic likes, follows and comments from accounts that use third-party apps to boost their popularity". Meanwhile, the co-founders of Twitter have been expressing regret that their platform has contributed to the numbers race. "I think showing follower counts was probably ultimately detrimental," said co-founder Ev Williams. "It really put in your face that the game was popularity."
What influencers can gain
That game is an addictive one, with a strong cyclical element. Big numbers attract attention, which inflates those numbers further, attracting yet more attention, all assisted by the algorithms that power the social media platforms. For people, an obsession with accumulating likes, follows and comments could be related to self-esteem, but there can be financial rewards, too. As businesses realised that a new breed of online "influencer" wielded considerable marketing power, those influencers began to command large sums of money for promoting products or denigrating competitors, with the sums rising in proportion to their perceived influence.
On one end of the scale, a restaurant in Milan currently offers free dishes to anyone with more than 1,000 Instagram followers who promotes the restaurant. On the other, someone with a million Twitter followers can command as much as $20,000 (Dh73,450) for a single promotional tweet. If you've got the numbers, "influencing" can be lucrative – but with real popularity very difficult to achieve, people inevitably opt for shortcuts.
“A lot of people have visible influence,” says Jonathan Gebauer from marketing consultants The Social Ms, “but that doesn’t translate into real influence, because they’ve simply bought their followers. It’s easy to impress people with big numbers, but the numbers are never correct. What you’re seeing is a representation of reality, not reality itself.”
The black market for fake followers, views and likes has grown substantially over the years, to a point where more than a billion accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are bots simulating the actions of real people by following, liking and commenting. If you have the money to spend, those bots can be harnessed to do your bidding and make you appear to be the flavour of the month, and this kind of activity has become endemic.
A recent investigation by The New York Times uncovered a firm called Devumi, which sold millions of fake followers to people and businesses. Several celebrities had their follower numbers artificially inflated by black market purchases. "It's fraud," admitted one Olympic sportsman after owning up to his purchase. "People who judge by how many likes or how many followers – it's not a healthy thing."
And yet the need to be perceived as important continues to seduce people into artificially boosting their numbers. Earlier this month, an American musician by the name of Jered Threatin achieved notoriety after managing to book a European tour for his band on the back of faked social media activity. When it became clear to him that you can’t actually fake an audience in a room, his plan began to unravel. The band’s performances to empty venues proved financially ruinous for Threatin, but the debacle was an illustration of how online numbers can, at least for a while, be an effective smokescreen.
Other issues that arise
Gebauer believes that the act of misreporting your numbers and misrepresenting your popularity leads to far more widespread problems relating to trust. “For example, if businesses are honest to potential investors about their numbers, it makes those numbers seem smaller than they actually are.
“I was told by one investor that they expect the numbers to be 20 per cent lower than they’re told in the pitch!”
In other words, everyone's at it – and this misrepresentation goes all the way to the top, with Facebook itself coming under fire for reporting statistics that are clearly at odds with reality. One study found that the firm claimed to reach more people in certain demographics and locations than actually exist. Last month a lawsuit was filed claiming that Facebook had inflated its video viewership metrics, leading businesses to spend more money on the platform in the mistaken belief that it would yield more revenue.
Few businesses can afford to throw good money after bad based on guesswork. "We spend enormous amounts of time trying to understand, analyse and explain the [different metrics] between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Pandora and YouTube," said Procter & Gamble's Mark Pritchard earlier this year in a speech calling for greater transparency. This summer, the multinational Unilever questioned the role of influencers in marketing and called for fraud to be weeded out.
“Social media platforms are starting to realise how fundamentally soulless and empty many of their metrics are,” says digital marketing expert Marcus Sheridan. “Finally they’re being scrutinised a bit and they’re having to clean up shop. We’ve got entire businesses and brands built on vanity metrics and sandy foundations. Transparency and authenticity have to be the metrics going forward.”
But how do you measure popularity authentically, in a way that can’t be undermined or meddled with? This will be an ongoing question for social media firms to address. Even if bot activity can be stamped out, there’s the additional problem of “engagement pods”, where large groups of people agree to promote each other to give the illusion of popularity, skewing everything from political debate to musicians’ fan bases. The most effective solution would be for us to stop being impressed by large numbers, and to shed our inherent need to be perceived as popular. But these things are hard-wired into us, and will forever be a weakness that no amount of technology could ever compensate for.