Widely publicized reports of “click farms” or “follower factories” have pushed the phenomenon of “fake” likes, followers, and views—generally called social media marketing (SMM) services by those engaged in the market—to the center of social media debates and public view. To gain visibility and influence, politicians on Twitter and so-called social media influencers on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube have come to purchase SMM services as part of a broader visibility strategy. In this process, diverse forms of artificial amplification have become an integral part of social media platform practices. This has raised questions about the shaping of social media publics, in particular, and of shifting forms of influence and power in contemporary society, more generally.“Our research, focusing mainly on Instagram followers, reveals an ongoing professionalization of the market and the development of an increasingly automated market infrastructure that links informal cottage industries worldwide, allowing for market expansion.”
In previous reports, click farms in countries like the Philippines have been understood as employing low-wage digital workers to generate fake Facebook followers or Twitter comments for politicians like Donald Trump.1Antonio A. Casilli, “Never Mind the Algorithms: The Role of Click Farms and Exploited Digital Labor in Trump’s Election” (November 20, 2016), accessed June 2, 2021. Our research, focusing mainly on Instagram followers, reveals an ongoing professionalization of the market and the development of an increasingly automated market infrastructure that links informal cottage industries worldwide, allowing for market expansion. We thus shift our primary focus of attention away from corporate platforms such as Instagram and instead toward the SMM services market. Through interviews with and observations of market actors worldwide and the mapping of the market’s infrastructure, we have gained a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between corporate social media platforms and the SMM services marketplace, both concerning the production of fake accounts and the distribution of these services.
The range of available services has been expanding in the context of a cat-and-mouse game between corporate platforms and the wide range of actors involved in the SMM services market, which revolves around “authenticity.” For example, providers offer bot-generated accounts used to sell followers, likes, comments, and other account activities in bulk on online marketplaces. In response, platforms such as Instagram develop algorithms to close or restrict accounts defined as “inauthentic,” which leads providers to produce “authentic enough” accounts that avoid detection and can be used to like and follow other accounts. Rather than attempting to identify what or who is truly authentic—an impossible task in itself—our research is primarily concerned with understanding how authenticity is shaped relationally by Instagram policies through which accounts are produced, valorized, surveilled, regulated, and authenticated. It is in this space that the boundaries are set for what accounts may remain active on the platforms, thus setting the limits for the constitution of social media publics.
Shaping and regulating authenticity“Instagram’s distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” activities—never defined but often noted in their blog posts—forms the rationale for security updates that shape the contours of legitimate accounts and user activities on the platform.”
The slipperiness of authenticity is part of what makes it a useful term, as different actors can use it for different ends.2Alice E. Marwick, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 121. A construct aligned to individualism,3Richard Handler, “Authenticity,” Anthropology Today 2, no. 1 (1986): 2–4. authenticity has gained purchase as a key term for both social media platforms aiming to create “community” and within the field of social media marketing, particularly among Instagram users engaged in online status-building. On the one hand, Facebook defines coordinated inauthentic behavior as “people or pages working together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing.” Instagram’s distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” activities—never defined but often noted in their blog posts—forms the rationale for security updates that shape the contours of legitimate accounts and user activities on the platform. For instance, accounts with no posts while acquiring an unusually large number of followers in a short time risk being closed down. On the other hand, within the SMM services market, the quality of the service is often referred to in varying levels of authenticity (e.g., “real-looking users,” “100% real,” “real & engaging,” “super VIP real”).
Taking the SMM services market as a starting point allows us to consider the shifting boundary between “authentic” and “inauthentic” practices defined by social media platforms. Providers we interviewed from countries such as Indonesia, Morocco, and Turkey have revealed the importance of tinkering and experimentation in response to Instagram’s changing algorithms to mass produce accounts and distribute followers in a way that appears “authentic.” For instance, after a major Instagram security update, a Moroccan informant told us, “Before we could transfer 200,000 followers in one day, but since the update the services are much slower. Instagram has blocked proxies that have handled the accounts that we create and created a system that sees the automated work of our systems.”4Skype interview, September 1, 2019. In response, he was forced to, through trial and error, figure out the number of followers that could be added to accounts over time.“It is in this field of negotiation that good-enough followers find temporary resting places on social media platforms.”
More specifically, this creates a space and process in which what we term the “authentic-enough” or “good-enough” follower takes shape.5In his work on brain scans as evidence for explaining socio-medical disorders, Dumit understands evidence as a “temporary resting places for explanations,” thus shifting attention away from scientific truth to the practices, judgments, and struggles that come to shape “good enough” scientific facts. Joseph Dumit, “When Explanations Rest: ‘Good-enough’ Brain Science and the New Socio-medical Disorders,” in Living and Working with the New Medical Technologies: Intersections of Inquiry, eds. Margaret Lock, Allan Young, and Alberto Cambrosio (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 209–232. See also, Johan Lindquist, “Good Enough Imposters: The Market for Instagram Followers in Indonesia and Beyond,” in The Imposter as Social Theory: Thinking with Gatecrashers, Cheats and Charlatans, eds., Steve Woolgar et al. (Bristol University Press, 2021). A Turkish informant told us, “High-quality followers are very important. If your account doesn’t have some profile photos and posts, it is worthless. You cannot sell it. I also have developed direct messaging between accounts. Their coordination is always changing. We need to show them a “real” user. We give our customers what they want.” When he says that we need to show “them” a real user, he could very well be referring not only to the customer purchasing the services but also to Instagram, as the creation of an “authentic” user speaks to the interests of both. Through these examples we move beyond a firm distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” followers and show how these and related distinctions are temporarily established and constantly shifting. It is in this field of negotiation that good-enough followers find temporary resting places on social media platforms.
The tensions surrounding the good-enough follower raise broader issues concerning contemporary social media publics. The struggle for attention has historically been of critical importance to the constitution of publics.6Warner, 60–62. Artificial amplification has come to organize attention concerning social media publics in several novel and interrelated ways. First, follower metrics increasingly form the basis for influence and create symbolic power, making a person or idea appear more popular than they are. The term “Instafame,” defined as “the condition of having a relatively great number of followers on the app,”7Alice E. Marwick, “The Imposter as Social Theory: Thinking with Gatecrashers, Cheats and Charlatans,” Public Culture 27, no. 1 (2015): 137–160. clearly illustrates how attention is shaped in the relationship between metrics, influence, and power. Second, social media publics are shaped in relation to platform relevance and recommendation algorithms, further amplifying the attention to an idea or person’s visibility. The components that make up an algorithmic formula are essential to understanding the architectural structuring of visibility on a social media platform and how algorithms thereby organize attention in platform-specific ways.8Taina Bucher, “Want To Be on the Top? Algorithmic Power and the Threat of Invisibility on Facebook,” New Media & Society, no. 14, no. 7 (2012): 1164–1180. Third, publics are not only constructed but also made visible and accessible on social media platforms. The public can appear to the user (and the researcher) as an anonymous view metric on an Instagram post, a comment thread on YouTube, or a retweet metric that can be clicked to reveal the user accounts that have amplified the message to their followers.“While methods change over time in relation to the cat-and-mouse game, they stabilize relatively quickly, as the SMM services market repeatedly, collectively, and creatively responds to social media platforms’ security updates.”
Building on our conversations with SMM service providers and sellers and mapping the market, we have further investigated the shaping of these publics and their relationships with Instagram through experimental methods. We set up Instagram accounts and payment methods, bought Instagram followers, explored data collection limits, and analyzed the relationships between followers and the platform. The findings show that, despite the different authenticity indicators (i.e., “super VIP real”) in the SMM services market, the followers’ behavior and their persistence are relatively consistent, suggesting that the methods for constructing good-enough Instagram followers are relatively stable and established within the limited time of our study. In other words, while methods change over time in relation to the cat-and-mouse game, they stabilize relatively quickly, as the SMM services market repeatedly, collectively, and creatively responds to social media platforms’ security updates.
Taking the boundary between authenticity and inauthenticity seriously and focusing on the good-enough, or authentic-enough follower, allows us to consider authenticity as a construct that defines the limits of social media publics, adding new perspectives to how contemporary publics are formed. Scholars have highlighted various ways in which publics take shape, for instance, through the circulation of texts or the creation of networks;9See, for instance, Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49–90, (on texts); N.S. Marres, “No Issue, No Public: Democratic Deficits after the Displacement of Politics” (PhD diss., Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, 2005), (on objects); Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), (on recursive publics); danah boyd, “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications” in Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, ed. Zizi Papacharissi (Taylor & Francis, 2010), 39–58, (on networked publics). yet, the rise of social media and artificial amplification illustrates how follower metrics have become a critical dimension of contemporary publics, raising questions about their limits and status. Instagram is a corporate platform that allows for participation and shapes attention through algorithmic governance. This participation is regulated according to “authentic” practices, and its influence is measured through follower metrics. The good-enough follower tests and defines the limits of this public’s qualities as it becomes increasingly evident that authenticity itself is shaped relationally, placing in question how participation and influence are shaped on social media platforms.
This research was made possible by grants from the Swedish Research Council, grant number 2017-02937 (Lindquist), and the Dutch Research Council (NWO), grant number VI.Veni.191C.048 (Weltevrede).
Banner photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash.