"Nice!" "Great job!" "Awesome content!"
The comments are almost always the same. It seems harmless enough – a couple of enthusiastic, if slightly abrupt, messages of support underneath a picture of a chocolate cake, a yoga class, or a faceless person staring into the distance.
But often, there's no one behind those words at all.
Enter the Instagram bot – a concept mired in controversy, but a lot more common than many realise.
These bots, along with engagement (likes) and even video views can all be bought, and this has created a murky underbelly to the influencer industry.
It also means it's hard to know who to trust.
After all, the urge to cheat can be strong in an industry where the number of followers, likes and views can be monetised.
'A form of fraud': What are Instagram bots?
Bots are basically just shell accounts, created to like, comment on or follow your Instagram page. For as low as $6.99 (Dh26) you can get yourself an extra 500 followers; an attractive notion if you're an aspiring influencer looking to build a fan base.
Read more from our 'The State of Influence' series:
"A lot of aspiring influencers will buy followers at the start because the truth is that followers beget followers," notes Jamal AlMawed, founder of PR and influencer agency Gambit Communications.
"When someone sees a page and it already has an audience, it gives an air of credibility and they are more likely to follow. This is, however, a form of fraud."
In 2019, research by Swedish e-commerce start-up A Good Company assessed 1.84 million Instagram accounts across 82 countries. It found that, globally, more than 57 per cent of Instagram users have bought followers, comments or used engagement bots. The three markets with the most fake accounts were the US (49 million), Brazil (27 million) and India (16 million). The report concluded that Instagram fraud now costs marketers an estimated $750 million in wasted budgets per year.
Bought or bot followers were once the biggest red herring to watch out for, but everything can be bought these days.
A simple Google search on "how to buy likes on Instagram" throws up 5.1 million results. It's a similar scenario if you replace the word "likes" for "followers".
That first page of search results displays half a dozen online companies offering payment plans for social media likes; one company, for example, offers 50 likes for $1.47, right up to 10,000 likes for $88.99.
You might also have heard of "like factories" or "click workers"; where people can be paid for days of liking, viewing and sharing content, sometimes across hundreds of phones.
And, despite social media companies trying their best to stem the rising tide of fake followers, by removing fake accounts, changing their algorithms to punish those who use bots and doing constant sweeps to delete paid-for likes, companies around the world are continuing to find new ways to sidestep regulations.
Why the future of influencing could be having less followers, not more
So, could slashed marketing budgets because of the pandemic put a stop to this?
"Brands want more for less right now, but at the same time influencers are really starting to see their worth during this time, and those who do this as a full-time job ultimately can’t pay bills with free gifts – it needs to work both ways," Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, founder of PR and marketing agency TishTash, says.
Shawe says engagement rates for influencers have undoubtedly increased during the pandemic, but it will be harder for many to monetise their work as brands tighten belts across the world.
For this reason, Shawe is a big believer in the "micro influencer", which she thinks could be the future of the industry. These are the people with a smaller amount of loyal and cultivated followers. They tend to sit somewhere around the 10,000 to 20,000 followers mark.
"We look at engagement rates and both type and quality of content over follower numbers, and although it can take some education explain to clients why follower numbers should not be the priority metric, the results do really speak volumes."
But, aside from the unimaginative phrases they throw out in comments, how do you know if you're looking at an account that employs bots?
PR professionals we consulted consider daily jumps of anything more than a couple of thousand followers a day a red flag. Having a post that goes viral can help for small increases, usually a couple of thousand at a time. To check the number of followers gained per day, to see if an influencer was purchasing them, most relied on online monitoring tool Social Blade.
Influencers The National spoke to for this series all said it would take at least five years to grow anything upwards of 100,000 followers.
Shahd Al Jumaily, a fashion blogger with an Instagram following of more than 380,000, says her Instagram account took five years to cultivate, and was mostly a slow and steady increase. Celebrity endorsements (from the likes of Huda Kattan, Joelle Mardinian, Lujain Omran and Balqees Fathi) helped her along the way – adding from five to 10,000 followers in one-off spikes.
"Plenty of people who buy followers seem to go up 3,000 a day, and then have random 15,000 jumps. I think nowadays many people are able to tell when an influencer is buying followers or even likes and comments," she says.
Lifestyle blogger Naomi D'Souza says her 90,000 followers also took about five years, and it was mostly a slow and steady gain. "I started putting more work into it – I brushed up my photography skills, learned how to edit, invested in good photography equipment, started communicating with my followers, and so much more. I think people realised I was passionate about what I did, so they followed me," she says.
D'Souza says she then used free stays at hotels as barter deals, until she became popular enough to monetise her platform. She does not disclose her rates.
"In this day and age many can sniff out the fakes from the real. People who create for the wrong reasons, misuse their platform, or don’t use their platform to its full potential are questionable.
"This city is small, and so is the industry, people talk."
How to spot fake followers
PR professionals and brands say they use tools such as Social Blade to check up on an influencer's following count, and to spot seismic, unnatural jumps.
Lama Abdelbarr, spokeswoman for social media analytics and monitoring tool Talkwalker, says this kind of homework is imperative for brands.
"Fake engagement usually occurs in spikes when influencers buy followers. I look for a healthy engagement rate that grows over time, indicating that the influencer is actively nurturing and growing their audience base," Abdelbarr says.
She has long argued that likes, comments and followers should not be used as metrics to decide the value of an influencer. These, she says, are "vanity metrics" and "do not provide enough tangible value".
So if the risk is so great, why do influencers continue to buy engagement?
"I think it’s simply because they can get away with it," Abdelbarr says. "Sadly, there is still some ignorance around influencer marketing best practices – both on the influencer and brand sides."
But bots aren't the only things to be wary of in terms of fake engagement: AlMawed warns of the prevalence of the "bestie-based spend" in the industry. He says some marketing managers enjoy the prestige of being on personal terms with popular personalities and spend with them to keep that relationship going.
"This results in an industry where influencers are rewarded for their sociability with clients more than their value, and that is dangerous."
Another trick are so-called "content pods": influencers band together, usually in a WhatsApp group, to let each other know when they've posted new content. Each of the participants of the pod are then encouraged to leave a comment on said post, to increase its engagement.
As AlMawed notes, "the industry will continue to evolve and hopefully the cream will rise to the top," but he doesn't think the trickery is "stopping any time soon".