Instagram - how fake are those followers?

When you start to use Instagram seriously, and to pay attention to building your following, you become aware of how frustratingly slowly your numbers grow. And, by contrast, how vast other people’s numbers are. Are they really that popular? Or is something else going on? 

As soon as money is in the mix, people start to game their numbers. Brands spent more than $570 million on influencer marketing on Instagram last year, according to estimates from eMarketer. People from all sorts of niches, including adventure, are keen to reach the threshold that lets them share in that wealth. As a rough guide, an entry level follower count for micro-influencer status is 10,000. To drop the micro, you need to pass 100,000. That can feel impossible to achieve. 

“I like to look at Instagram as an economy of content producers and consumers, where the currencies of the land are likes and comments,” wrote photographer Calder Wilson in PetaPixel.  “For many users, getting even 100 likes is a substantial achievement. Unfortunately, this feat is quickly overshadowed by a growing number of users getting thousands of likes per photo (a monumental feat doing things purely organic). It can be demoralizing to see others easily reaching these heights with increasing frequency.”

The brands are aware that follower numbers can be gamed, and some will take the time to dig into them. However, many will still throw money at the biggest follower number they can afford. 

“The follower count is really completely meaningless,” said Bob Gilbreath, chief executive of Ahalogy, a marketing technology company in Cincinnati, quoted in a NY Times article. “It’s untrustworthy for the true following, and it’s certainly untrustworthy for the quality of the creative work.”  

That doesn’t stop hopeful influencers from inflating their numbers in all sorts of ways. “Viral Nation, a social influencer talent agency, receives 50 to 100 influencer applications on a daily basis, and 20-30 percent of them have used bots on Instagram,” said Joe Gagliese, co-founder and managing partner of the agency.

So how does Joe Gagliese know that? How do you assess someone’s numbers and decide how much of their following is real?  Conversely, how to you prove the value of your own (smaller) numbers to a possible brand partner? 


Pick any account, click on the user name. At the top are three figures: number of posts, number of followers, number the account is following. 

  • If followers and following are roughly even and in the tens or hundreds, the user is probably running a genuine account and gaining followers organically. 
  • If followers and following are still even in numbers but heading into the thousands, it becomes more and more likely that they are doing the follow/unfollow game. They only follow people who follow them. There are ways of signalling this with hashtags, like #f4f (follow for follow) - 134 million uses so far! (If your followers numbers bounce up and down, it may well be these sort of accounts following you, waiting 24 hours to see if you follow back, and then unfolllowing if you don't.)
  • If their followers outstrip their following by thousands, they may be genuinely well known in their niche - which you can test by googling them. Do they exist in contexts other than Instagram? However they may be buying followers (which may be fake-real - people in third world countries being paid to follow accounts, or fully fake - spam-bots). Back in 2015, when Instagram had only half the users it has now, researchers estimated that 8% of accounts were spam-bots.
  • Instagram does try to stop bot accounts but it is a sophisticated game. “The botnet operators acquire a huge amount of IP [internet protocol] addresses so it appears that new Instagram accounts are being set up from different places. They also acquire email address in bulk from major providers such as Yahoo, Hotmail. and Gmail to get past Instagram's email verification.”


Tap the followers number and you will get a list of all of them. Fake accounts tend to:

  • Have no profile photos
  • Have made no effort with their user name and bio - username filled with random numbers
  • Have posted less than 10 photos or videos
  • Have the account is set to private
  • Post without hashtags and put one word captions
  • Be following far more people than follow them 


  • Another way to tell if followers have been bought is to compare the follower numbers with the engagement rates per post. Engagement rate equals total number of likes & comments per post, divided by the total number of followers. The percentage falls off as follow numbers grow. According to this post, expect 8% for under 1000 followers, 4% to 10,000, falling towards 2% and under as you approach a million.   
  • However, likes can also be bought. On any individual post, you can click on the ‘number of likes’ under it and see who left them. Do they look like real accounts, and like people who would be interested in that post from that account? If there are hundreds of likes, but no comments, that suggests the likes have been bought. (Although you can disable comments on a post, which someone might do if they are getting trolled. Like all these measures, it’s hard to tell for sure what is going on.) 
  • And of course, you can buy comments. Bought or otherwise automated comments are often very short - one word, a few emojis - and generic in ways that may feel slightly off for the content of the post. 

Prices for Followers, Likes and Video Views, from Buzzoid. They promise 'quality followers, fast delivery and 24/7 support.'


  • Scrolling down the grid of photos and clicking on the very first one will get you (at the bottom) the date it was posted (and so the opening date of the account). A new account that already has high follower numbers is highly likely to be fake. Genuine influencers have generally been active on Instagram for quite some time already, and their numbers are growing over time. 
  • A sudden big jump in follower numbers is also suspicious. Getting one photo reposted by an influencer is not going to bring in thousands of new followers. This article pointed out that “It’s rare for an account to grow by tens of thousands of followers in a week without a massive, mostly viral marketing campaign, news article or TV appearance.” (However, you can buy followers via a drip campaign to avoid the suspicious jump.)
  • If you tap the heart icon for your account, it shows the likes and comments for your account. But at the top left is a grey tab ‘Following’. Tap that and you can see the activity of the people you are following. Keep scrolling down. An account that is liking sets of 8 posts, and keeps on reappearing as you scroll down the page, is either a power user or likely automating those likes in an attempt to attract new followers. 
  • is a fascinating free site for checking out the following pattern for Instagram accounts. Organic growth tends to show a steady upward line (on the graph at the bottom of the stats page) and daily follower numbers tend to show followers leaving as well as joining. Strange wobbles - the line jumps up or plateaus out - tend to suggest gaming of followers. So does relentless daily follower gain with no losses. 

A strange account I stumbled across - @i. No bio, very few posts, generic photos. Looking at a sample post we find a one-word caption, no hashtags, an amazing 2659 likes, and no comments. At right are the stats from - the account opened in June 2016 with a whopping 40k followers! Numbers dropped briefly then started a relentless upwards climb, always gaining new followers despite seldom posting. 


  • Check through your own followers and get rid of fake accounts - by going to their account, tap the … at top right and then Block them. 
  • Work out your own engagement rate and (assuming you are under 1000 or in the low 1000s) work on achieving 10%+ engagement
  • Create great content, post consistently, and get social - like and comment on other quality accounts.