That’s the big question.
In the book, I’ve given you some publicly available tools to check and the methods to see if their apparent influence stacks up. I believe that at least 99% of real humans that use Instagram are not buying followers, comments, and likes. But then again, only the top 1% of the most followed people on Instagram (the last stat I saw was people with over 150,000 followers), are the ones that have any monetary incentive to fake it. Some people in bottom 99% may want to get to the top 1% so they can get cash and free stuff by representing brands, and the surest way to do that is to buy your way in by purchasing non-human bots that appear to be real.
And the answer can be in the grey zone. Some people buy close to 100% of their followers, likes, and comments. Some around 70%, some less than 10%. Also, some purchase services that use the follow/unfollow method of gaining random followers that is similarly against Instagram’s T&C’s. And maybe that follow/unfollow has helped them get most or just a few of their followers. It’s a sliding scale. Others use small pods or mega pods to pad their numbers. I think most people can agree that almost any percentage easily passes the Rubicon into the unethical.
On a side note, it may seem as though I am crying foul because this entire enterprise is financially damaging to me. I do indeed make money from some Influencer deals, but it accounts for less than 5% of my small art company’s overall income. The vast majority is from fine art sales. I simply ended up figuring all this stuff out because I ended up on some gigs with some fraudsters, and I realized what a mess the whole industry has become. Very few people seem to be talking about it openly, and I think mine is the first book that does a deep dive on the subject matter and its overall societal impact both economically and sociologically.
As far as how many users are real, I doubt Instagram will ever officially say because I honestly don’t think even they can figure it out. Or, if they actually can figure it out and are letting them continue to create a counterfeit economy, well then that speaks to a larger corporate issue about inflating numbers. However, I believe the former is true: the bots and scripts (and burgeoning AI) out there are too clever for Instagram to discern what is fake and what is real.
For example, you’d think an account that looks real and posts stories every day must be real, right? Well, I’ve found several bots that post tons of daily stories, all of which are fake (scraped from other accounts so as to appear real). It takes a while for a human to figure out if an account is real or not, via methods described in the book, and it is not clear Instagram has mastered an automated way to do this.
Personally, I believe they are undermining the online economy in which too many people trust. If people don’t trust in an economy (ala Venezuela), it can cause extreme unrest amongst its citizens. Yuval Noah Harari has a great concept in his books illustrating that humans are the only animal on Earth that can cooperate with strangers because we all can believe in fictions. For example, the meter, hour, and dollar don’t physically exist, but we all agree on the story of these, so we can make agreements with strangers. New constructs have now emerged as the follower, like, and comment. If these fundamentals cannot be trusted, the entire framework can fall apart. I believe this is why it’s in Instagram’s best interest to clean it up.
Real Instagram handles and names are used throughout as examples. I provide my personal opinion on what may constitute fraudulent behavior on social media, based on the evidence and data available to me. The reader is welcome to draw their own conclusions.