In 2014, Instagram embarked on a major effort to rid its platform of fake accounts or “bots.” Though the existence of bots on Instagram was a widely-known fact, it was difficult to know just how many there were and how pervasive the problem had become — at least until millions of accounts disappeared.
These accounts seemed to vanish, slashing follower counts and exposing the practices of buying fake followers by some celebrities and influencers. Instagram’s own account lost nearly 30% of its followers — a staggering 18.9 million. Justin Bieber lost 3.5 million followers and Kim Kardashian lost 1.3 million.
In the two and a half years since the Instapurge, Instagram bots haven’t ceased to be a problem. Services like Instagress allow individuals and accounts to automate following and liking (a way to, essentially, “fake” engagement) and to buy followers and build a following of fake accounts. As it becomes harder and harder to tell real followers from fake followers and real engagement from engagement that’s faked, the $1 billion influencer marketing industry on Instagram becomes more complicated.
One of the most popular sites used for account automation and follower purchasing, Instagress, shuttered following a “request” from Instagram. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been following the progress of botting on Instagram, nor Instagram’s success of late.
August 2016 saw Instagram release Instagram Stories, a Snapchat-like feature that allows users to send and share brief photo and video messages that disappear after 24 hours. The feature took off almost immediately and, less than a year after launch, draws over 200 million active users a day on its own. For comparison, Snapchat’s most recent numbers indicate that it has 166 million daily active users. Instagram’s monthly active user count is growing, too, adding 200 million users since June 2016, now at 700 million.
Sad news to all of you who fell in love with Instagress: by request of Instagram we’ve closed our web-service that helped you so much. pic.twitter.com/sIRYfFVywX
— Instagress (@instagress) April 20, 2017
But discussions about botting that call into question the legitimacy of that growth undermine Instagram’s success. What’s more, bots make it hard to trust the quality of Instagram’s metrics. There are tools that analyze users’ followings and determine what percentage of their followers are real people (versus bots), but there’s still some confusion as to how much likes and followers are actually worth.
Bots aren’t a good look for Instagram, particularly when they’re getting press. It’s not surprising that they’d want to get rid of them. The purge, however it was executed, was effective in 2014, and now, in 2017, there’s no doubt that it could be just as (if not more) effective. The question is whether or not Instagram would want to purge accounts like it did last time, or if the purge could take an entirely different form.
There are plenty of reasons why curbing the bot problem would be a priority for Instagram. Recent success aside, social media platforms are fickle creatures. A bad update, unexpected competition, or a migration of users can change a platform’s future overnight. It’s important that Instagram preserves the integrity of its community and the value of its follower and engagement metrics. Bot accounts muddy the water, making it hard for users to figure out who’s built legitimate followings and who’s purchased them.
Bots likely wouldn’t sink Instagram, but it’s in its best interest to try to mitigate the problem. We certainly could see another purge, but it’s worth noting that there are other avenues that Instagram could (and is) pursuing. Instagress was a first step. It won’t stop botting, but it was a notable service with a lot of customers. It could, in the immediate future, stem the flow.
Beyond that, it could have a chilling effect. Seeing what happened to Instagress may have other, similar ventures thinking twice about the foundation upon which they’re building. Botting may be lucrative, but if Instagram is taking out the source rather than the accounts themselves, that business could dry up.
Going to the source to take out fake accounts is certainly more immediate, but it could also be strategic. Depending on how Instagram measures its users, eliminating huge swaths of accounts might carve into its growth numbers.
Bots are a major problem and without significant action, they’re not going anywhere soon. That said, there’s one engagement metric on Instagram that can’t be faked (yet): views on Stories.
Stories is becoming a bigger and bigger part of Instagram’s platform, and it’s a feature that can’t be easily manipulated. There also isn’t the same heavy emphasis on engagement metrics because they aren’t visible. We know that Instagram Stories is seeing 200 million daily active users and that they’re legitimate. That signals a big opportunity for marketers.
Influencer marketing on Instagram is a huge opportunity, but knowledge is power when it comes to evaluating influencers, followings, and engagement. For more information, see our guides on Instagram bots and fake followers.