The big busi­ness of fake fol­low­ers

With just a click, any­one can buy likes, views and in­flu­ence on Twit­ter, Face­book and In­sta­gram – so how much of it is real?

Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By AMY SPIRO

Ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence, ex­per­tise – there was a time when the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of prom­i­nent fig­ures were based on their real-life ex­pe­ri­ences. But in­creas­ingly, we tout the in­flu­ence of pro­fes­sion­als – es­pe­cially in cer­tain fields – by their so­cial-me­dia pres­ence.

How many Twit­ter fol­low­ers does a jour­nal­ist have? How many In­sta­gram likes does that model get? And how many views did that song re­ceive on YouTube?

And how much of these cre­den­tials have any mean­ing when they’re all for sale?

As the in­flu­ence and preva­lence of so­cial me­dia grows, the busi­ness of pro­mo­tion across all these plat­forms is grow­ing with it. For years, com­pa­nies have sold prod­ucts that boost your so­cial-me­dia pres­ence – or just the ap­pear­ance of it. And Is­rael is no ex­cep­tion.

There are a hand­ful of Is­raeli com­pa­nies that deal in the sale of so­cial-me­dia at­ten­tion. Any­one with a credit card can buy Twit­ter fol­low­ers, Face­book likes, In­sta­gram com­ments and YouTube views within min­utes. And it might cost less than you think.

At Buy.org.il, you can buy 1,000 Twit­ter fol­low­ers for NIS 70 plus VAT. At Tru­effic, it will cost you NIS 100 plus VAT for the same amount. And Alon Net­work will sell you 1,000 brand-new Twit­ter fol­low­ers for NIS 10 – a bar­gain-base­ment price for what they call “eggs” – new users with­out a pro­file photo who make lit­tle ef­fort not to ap­pear to be ro­bots.

Pur­chas­ing fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram is a lot cheaper: NIS 59, NIS 66 and NIS 3 from those three com­pa­nies, re­spec­tively. On YouTube, 10,000 views for your video will cost NIS 120 plus VAT from Buy.org.il and NIS 169 plus VAT on Tru­effic. Tru­effic even sells “dis­like” votes for YouTube videos. For NIS 49, you can buy 500 thumbs-down votes on a video posted by your com­pe­ti­tion. Other ser­vices have been known to sell pos­i­tive Ama­zon re­views and Yelp rank­ings.

“Our most pop­u­lar ser­vice in Is­rael is def­i­nitely In­sta­gram,” Aviv Aldo, founder of Tru­effic, told The Jerusalem Post. “Young girls who want to be so­cial-me­dia stars are our big­gest cus­tomers.”

Aldo said Tru­effic has been around for eight years and sells a wide range of ser­vices. But noth­ing is as pop­u­lar as In­sta­gram fol­low­ers.

ON IN­STA­GRAM, the more fol­low­ers you have, the higher price you can de­mand for push­ing spon­sored con­tent on your fans. The most pop­u­lar Is­raeli users on the photo-shar­ing plat­form are, no sur­prise, Gal Gadot and Bar Re­faeli. But if we’re be­ing hon­est, they are al­ready global su­per­stars.

Af­ter those two hot com­modi­ties come Anna Zak and Neta Alchimis­ter, two mod­els and so­cial-me­dia stars. Zak, just 16, has mod­eled for a va­ri­ety of Is­raeli com­pa­nies, and even re­leased two sin­gles on­line to her more than one mil­lion fol­low­ers. Alchimis­ter, 23, who also boasts over a mil­lion In­sta­gram fans, mod­els for Cas­tro and founded her own de­signer swim-wear com­pany. Each one uses her plat­forms to hawk cloth­ing, jew­elry, per­fume, fur­ni­ture and even Sam­sung phones – spon­sored posts which can earn them tens of thou­sands of shekels.

Netta Doron, who runs her own so­cial-me­dia mar­ket­ing firm, says she would never rec­om­mend that a client pur­chase in­flu­ence on any such plat­form.

“The goal is not likes, it’s busi­ness – it’s good PR and on­line dis­course,” Doron told the Post. “If it’s not au­then­tic then it won’t re­ally aid the busi­ness.” She said that peo­ple who pur­chase fol­low­ers and likes are not able to trans­late those things into real en­gage­ment that will ben­e­fit them fi­nan­cially. The pur­chases are of­ten an ego boost for in­di­vid­u­als more than pro­mo­tion for busi­ness.

On the record, no­body will ad­mit to pur­chas­ing fol­low­ers or rec­om­mend­ing that clients do so. But there’s no doubt that the in­dus­try is alive and well.

Aldo said Tru­effic has sev­eral thou­sand cus­tomers, in­clud­ing politi­cians and fa­mous fig­ures. A cus­tomer rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Buy.org.il also said its cus­tomers in­clude well-known peo­ple: “Ev­ery­one does it to­day.”

TWIT­TER’S REALM on the In­ter­net is sep­a­rate from In­sta­gram’s, driven more by pithy one-lin­ers and back-and-forths than by bikini-clad mod­els.

Twit­ter is not the do­main of spon­sored con­tent and ad­ver­tise­ments – at least not close to the level of In­sta­gram. But it is where politi­cians and jour­nal­ists like to hang out and share their work and their views – where MKs from dif­fer­ent par­ties or even the same party will pub­licly bicker and shame each other. Seven of the 10 most-fol­lowed Is­raeli Twit­ter ac­counts be­long to jour­nal­ists.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times cre­ated a se­ri­ous stir with the rev­e­la­tion that many prom­i­nent fig­ures across a range of in­dus­tries had pur­chased Twit­ter fol­low­ers. Among a US-based com­pany’s 200,000 cus­tomers were ac­tors, mod­els, jour­nal­ists and other prom­i­nent per­son­al­i­ties. In the fall­out of that ar­ti­cle, film critic Richard Roeper was sus­pended from the Chicago Sun-Times be­fore be­ing re­in­stated with penal­ties for pur­chas­ing fol­low­ers; Bri­tish celebrity baker and TV per­son­al­ity Paul Hol­ly­wood deleted his ac­count en­tirely; and singer and ac­tivist Clay Aiken saw his fol­lower count drop by more than 100,000 ac­counts.

Af­ter The New York Times ar­ti­cle, Twit­ter it­self promised, “We are work­ing to stop them and any com­pa­nies like them.”

How can you tell if an ac­count has pur­chased fake fol­low­ers? The an­swer is that you can’t re­ally. There are signs and indicators – but no guar­an­tees. And even when ac­counts have large amounts of fake fol­low­ers, that doesn’t mean they paid for them. One no­table fea­ture of those who sell fake likes and fol­low­ers is that you can buy them for any­one you like, with­out their con­sent or even their knowl­edge.

ONE TOOL, Twit­terAu­dit. com, claims to an­a­lyze what per­cent­age of any ac­count’s fol­low­ers are real. Ac­cord­ing to the site, the com­pany takes a sam­ple of an ac­count’s fol­low­ers, ranks the like­li­hood of their be­ing ro­bots, and uses that to es­ti­mate the per­cent­age of real fol­low­ers. Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the most fol­lowed Is­raeli on Twit­ter af­ter Gadot, has 68% real fol­low­ers, ac­cord­ing to the site. The al­go­rithm be­lieves that just 33% of the 411,000 fol­low­ers of Chan­nel 2’s Amit Se­gal are real; just 28% of the 285,000 fol­low­ers of Chan­nel 10’s Ra­viv Drucker are real; and just 26% of Chan­nel 10’s Ay­ala Has­son’s 258,000 fol­low­ers are real.

Se­gal, who de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, has of­ten spo­ken about his be­lief that many of his fol­low­ers are fake. In a 2016 blog post, he wrote that he be­lieved only around 80,000 of his 227,000 fol­low­ers were real, and that he had “no doubt that ro­botic bat­tal­ions are flood­ing this so­cial net­work.”

Over the years many peo­ple have ac­cused Ne­tanyahu – or, more re­al­is­ti­cally, one of his aides – of pur­chas­ing fake fol­low­ers on so­cial me­dia, a charge he has al­ways ig­nored or de­nied.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both Chan­nel 2 and 10 said they would never pur­chase fake fol­low­ers or en­cour­age their em­ploy­ees to do so.

“We don’t buy fol­low­ers,” said Chan­nel 10 spokes­woman Adva Galanti. She added that she wasn’t aware of any ex­plicit pro­hi­bi­tion against re­porters do­ing so.

Alon Shani, the spokesman for Chan­nel 2, said the com­pany doesn’t spend any money on on­line pro­mo­tion in any way – that would only be done by Keshet and Reshet, the sup­pli­ers of the com­pany’s news broad­casts.

“All of our so­cial en­gage­ment is or­ganic,” Shani told the Post. “There is no pro­hi­bi­tion or of­fi­cial guid­ance for re­porters, and I haven’t gone re­porter by re­porter check­ing – nor do I in­tend to. But no­body has bought fol­low­ers or spent their pri­vate money on such a thing.”

Ynet re­porter Atilla Som­falvi, who lists 80,000 fol­low­ers (43% real ac­cord­ing to Twit­terAu­dit), has also re­peat­edly won­dered why so many ap­par­ent ro­bots are fol­low­ing him and other Is­raeli jour­nal­ists, “who give the im­pres­sion that they have hun­dreds of thou­sands of fol­low­ers – but they don’t.”

The sus­pected ac­counts are no­table for never hav­ing ac­tu­ally tweeted, lack­ing a pro­file photo or bio, and of­ten hav­ing user names that are noth­ing more than a string of let­ters and num­bers. But those are the cheap ones. Higher qual­ity and more ex­pen­sive fol­low­ers will ap­pear to have real names and pho­tos, and even bi­ogra­phies. Though they will rarely tweet them­selves, they of­ten re-tweet con­tent from clients.

Not sur­pris­ingly, no­body – from jour­nal­ists to politi­cians to celebri­ties – will ad­mit to pur­chas­ing fol­low­ers or likes on­line. Tens of thou­sands of fake ro­bots are float­ing around – many of which even have Is­raeli or He­brew names. So while it’s not clear how much so­cial-me­dia at­ten­tion in Is­rael is real, it is clear that some peo­ple in Is­rael are fork­ing over a lot for fakes.

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