December 5th, 2018

Instagram, our favourite photo-sharing app, has announced that it is now taking steps to remove inauthentic account activity from its platform. But what does this mean for everyday users? Well, it means that Instagram is cracking down on all the fakers – fake followers, fake likes, and fake comments. All generated from accounts that are using third-party apps to grow their popularity and social media following artificially.

With almost 1 billion users worldwide, Instagram has managed to stay fairly free of fake news and spam in comparison to other social media platforms. This is because Instagram is a mainly image-sharing app, unlike platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But this has not stopped the gradual increase of fake Instagram followers and likes degrading the experience of real users on the app. So Instagram has decided to put a stop to it.

What is inauthentic account activity?

Inauthentic account activity is any interaction on Instagram – liking, commenting or following other accounts – that has been generated by third-party apps. Social media automation tools like SocialDrift, Robolike and Popmatic promise to grow your following and stimulate your social presence for a financial payoff. They have been used by accounts and brands wanting to create the impression that they are more popular than they are, often to advance their careers or influence. Services like Instagress and Social Growth have already been shut down for generating fake activity on customers’ Instagram accounts. With Instagram now actively hunting down such apps, it won’t be long before they are providing a useless service.

How are they going to do it?

Instagram has now integrated AI tools into their platform which have been specially designed to highlight accounts which use social media automation apps. If you have been using third-party apps to grow your audience, then you may wake up to find a not-so-friendly message in your in-app inbox notifying you that all the inauthentic followers, likes and comments have been removed.

You will also need to secure your account by changing your password. Third-party apps require you to share your username and password in order to operate as your brand on Instagram. By changing your password, this prevents these apps continuing to have access to your Instagram activity. This includes users who have shared their login information with apps without realising that they have. So if you get a random message from Instagram HQ telling you to change your password, this might be why.

Why is Instagram doing this?  

Clamping down on automatically generated social media traffic is one of a number of steps that Instagram is taking to make its platform more transparent and trustworthy. In August this year, Instagram introduced an ‘About This Account’ feature to the app, which allowed users to see more information about their favourite accounts that have large audiences. This includes when the account was created, the country of origin, accounts with shared followers, if they have changed their username in the last year and all the ads that the account is currently running.

Instagram also went one step further, allowing accounts with large audiences to apply for their accounts to be verified through submitting a copy of their legal or business identification. The social media giant plans to significantly increase the number of verified accounts for public figures, celebrities, and international brands on their platform in the future.

These initiatives are part of a wider attempt by Instagram’s parent-company Facebook to remove fake or nefarious activity.  Earlier this year, Facebook removed more than 800 pages and accounts that were identified as inauthentic accounts used to artificially boost the popularity of fake news. Facebook has had a bit of a torrid time in the past couple of years, with allegations of fake news on their platform influencing the US elections and the more recent Cambridge Analytics scandal which *dragged* Mr Zuckerberg in front of the US Senate.

What if you ignore them?

If you choose to ignore Instagram’s war against inauthentic account activity, well more fool you. Instagram has warned that accounts which deliberately choose to continue using third-party apps to gain Instagram followers may see their Instagram experience impacted.

Although Instagram did not outline specifically what the penalties would be, any inauthentic activity is classed as a violation of the real and genuine interactions within the Instagram community. Other platforms like Twitter have temporarily banned or locked a user out of their account for engaging in activities that violate their policies. So, if you choose to continue using such apps, you have been warned, the consequences may be fatal to your brand.

Not only could you be risking serious repercussions for continuing to use social media AI bots, but Instagram is on a one-track course to remove all inauthentic activity from their platform. Meaning that this update is not going to be the last. Additional measures are going to be announced in the oncoming weeks, and more will follow as the company’s platform becomes increasingly sophisticated in sorting the real from the fake.

What does this mean for brands?

For the marketing world, the death knell for social media AI tools is a good omen. Brands and marketers can use Instagram and other social media platforms to find out more about audiences. You can use data from real user activity to inform and develop campaigns, assess market trends and build relationships with influential users.

Accounts whose popularity has been generated by automatic account activity through third-party apps invalidates the accuracy of this research. Any perceptions of trends and prominent social influencers found through your research is potentially pointless because it may be based on fake likes, comments and followings. This affects a marketer’s or brand’s ability to make meaningful partnerships which are based on real follower counts and engagement. By making it harder to generate popularity through activity automation tools, Instagram is making it possible to use its app as a valuable market resource.

These updates are to be expected. We’ve seen this before in the world of SEO. People realise that ranking at the top of Google or having lots of Instagram followers can be very lucrative indeed. The unfortunate truth is that people like to try and find shortcuts. For Instagram, it has manifested itself in the automation of fake followers and likes, for Google it meant linkspam, manipulative onsite spam tactics and a whole community of ‘Black Hat SEOs’. These Instagram updates can be viewed in a similar vein to Google’s infamous Panda and Penguin Updates – created for the purpose of putting a stop to the silliness.

The one clear message throughout all of this is that it does not matter what platform or channel we are talking about, the powers that be will always want to put the real user first. Without real users, there is nothing of value. We can therefore expect that forms of manipulation (spam) might have some initial success, but will always be actively tracked down and prevented. We always recommend a genuine, organic approach. It might be harder at first but will be far more sustainable and provide greater ‘real world’ results.

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