Updated: November 18, 2021
Originally Published: May 7, 2019
More than three billion user accounts exist on social media platforms. Naturally, businesses have sought to leverage the publishing power of these platforms. But how can marketers be sure that they are reaching the right people – or even real people – through these platforms?
It’s impossible to know exactly how many fake social media accounts exist; estimates range from 15% - 40%, depending on the platform. These fake social media followers cause myriad problems, from inaccurate statistics to malicious activities, such as phishing.
Social media channels have begun to catch on to the fakery and are cracking down on it:
- Facebook announced that it disabled 583 million fake profiles on social media within Q1 of 2018 alone, and that it would continue to monitor and delete suspicious accounts as they are created. Most of those accounts were deleted within minutes of user registration.
- In July 2018, Twitter removed all accounts that were locked for suspicious activity from other users’ follower accounts. Earlier in the year, Twitter announced that it would lock or remove almost 10 million suspicious social media followers per week.
- Instagram began cracking down on users that utilize bots in November 2018. Instagram removes accounts that use apps to automatically like, comment, or follow accounts. The company also fired a warning shot: Users who persist in using such apps “may see their Instagram experience impacted.”
Marketers who use social media for business can deal with fake social media profiles in several ways. How do you clean up social media? The first step is to understand the problems fake accounts pose.
The Problems with Fake Social Media Followers
Fake social media followers have driven many social media scandals in the last few years. Fake accounts run by hired political operatives are the most notorious of these scandals. But business competitors could use the same fake-account tricks to trash talk your products or brand.
Fake social media followers can skew and degrade your social media analytics, especially those related to engagement. Fake social media followers never engage like real users. Either they engage too much, commenting with the same generic or salesy message on your every post, or they never engage at all and thus reduce the overall engagement rate for your account.
An accurate count of engaged users weighs heavily in calculating the ROI of your social media efforts, all the more so as organic reach continues to decline. Furthermore, fake accounts that never engage can impact your performance on the platform itself.
Many social platforms make engagement a main metric in the algorithms that determine feed position. Engagement snowballs; heavy initial engagement causes the platform to send your content to more of your followers, and if they in turn engage still more followers get your message.
A followers list bloated with inactive accounts means a smaller proportion of your apparent audience engages with your content. The algorithms read that as audience boredom and react by sending your post to fewer recipients or place it down in their feeds. Even followers who comment on every post can cause problems, as the algorithms can spot them as spam. Those salesy comments can inhibit the spread of your message.
The most dangerous fake social media followers are those involved in phishing scams. Phishers encourage real users to surrender personal information, such as user names, emails, passwords, and even credit card data.
Some fake social media profiles are set up to gain data from your real followers. They may try to trick social media followers into thinking that your business is responding to them, when in fact they’re engaging with the fake account. These scammers often bait the hook with references to a real-world charity or cause.
Types of Fake Social Media Followers
Several types of non-human accounts reside on social media platforms. Not all of them are bad.
Inactive Social Media Accounts
Your business page could amass a large following of inactive accounts in several ways. Some are natural; social media users sometimes simply stop interacting with your brand. The longer you stay on a platform, the more inactive accounts you have. These inactive accounts are not a problem, and each platform has procedures in place to clean up accounts as they age and fall into disuse.
Other types of inactive accounts aren't so benign. Your account may gather “fans” who were never real people or were created by real users, but for a limited purpose – to have an extra chance at winning a contest, for example, or for hints at winning an online game. Perhaps they were purchased to inflate user statistics.
Social Media Bots
Automated bots differ from inactive accounts. Though non-human and programmed to perform certain actions, they can like, comment, follow and generally behave like real users. A 2018 Pew research study indicated that about two-thirds of Americans have heard of social media bots and 80% believe they are mainly used for negative purposes. Plenty of bots deserve this reputation, but not ALL of them.
Good social media bots are becoming more prevalent across social platforms as it becomes easier and more cost effective for businesses of all sizes to create them. These good bots include chatbots that can answer simple questions (e.g., questions about operating hours) on behalf of businesses through Messenger. Bots can be informative and fun; note the CNN breaking news bot and this Twitter account that shows a plant growing over time.
But the public perception of bots as bad guys is justified. Negative bots often spread incorrect or harmful information across social media and can be part of phishing scams.
Most social media platforms have strict rules on bot use. Still, bad bots can slip through the cracks of these regulations. Overall, bot creation is easier that it used to be. So you can create a bot that provides a welcome service to your audience. But it’s also easier for bad guys to create bad bots.
How You Get Fake Social Followers
Wondering whether you did something to cause these fake accounts to start following your business? Maybe you did, but not necessarily.
If you manage an even moderately active social media account for a business, expect a portion of your audience to be fake. Some of your actions might enlarge that fake portion.
In the early days of social media for business, selling fake followers was fairly common. No more. The platforms have mobilized against this possibly illegal practice and exposure of these bought, fake accounts would be a PR nightmare. Accounts purchased and forgotten years ago continue to cause problems for business pages. These purchased social media followers act like zombies. They raise your head count but never comment or engage with your content. Once purchased, they are very difficult to remove.
You can still pay third-party organizations to actually engage with and share your content, even though it violates terms of service for nearly all social media platforms. These fake social media followers are typically bots programed to leave comments or like these business pages. Businesses purchase these fake followers in the hope that fake engagement will prompt more legitimate engagement, because they know that most social media algorithms place posts with more engagement toward the top of their feeds. That might work, to a degree. But these fake social accounts, too, are subject to the problems typical of all fake followers.
Contests on your social media accounts are more innocent ways to attract accounts that soon go dormant. Contests can be a great way to increase brand awareness, but they often come with the downside of unwanted followers. People engage with the contest, share it, and your head count spikes. Contestants subscribe to your page in order to keep an eye on the contest or because the contest requires a subscription.
Ideally, these users would be members of your target audience. They would find your content valuable even after the contest is over. But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll follow your page avidly until they win or lose, and then never return – leaving you with algorithmic dead weight and a misleading head count. You don’t necessarily have to weed them all out. These users typically unsubscribe on their own after a time, but be aware of the potential problem.
The dead account isn’t the only contest-related issue. Some users create fake social media profiles or develop social media bots to increase their number of contest entries. This violates the terms of service on every social media platform, but still happens. These cheaters make it more difficult for you to pick a legitimate winner and they can impact your social media page after the contest ends by infesting your following with fake accounts.
Combat the cheaters with a social media contest tool that validates users. While these tools usually come at a cost, they may be worth it if you run a lot of contests through your social media accounts.
Social Media Advertising
Before I cause an uproar, a quick disclaimer: Most of the time, social advertising is a great way to add highly qualified and targeted audience members to your social media following. The problem comes when that targeting gets too broad.
Social media advertising allows businesses to set up detailed targeting of ad recipients. When businesses target too broadly or fail to align audience interests with their products and services, they attract irrelevant followers. If they’re not potential customers, you don’t want them in your social mix.
Audience irrelevance happens when you run a campaign, contest or promotion that could interest an audience that is slightly outside of your businesses’ target demo. It also happens during cross-promotions with other organizations. Avoid this by targeting as specifically as possible.
It’s great to expand your audience, but make sure you don’t go too far and invite followers who don’t fit your target. These non-target audience members aren’t necessarily fake social media followers, but they cause some of the same problems as fraudulent accounts. Audience expansion is fine, unless the result is audience dilution.
How to Know if You Have a Fake Follower Problem
Every social media account attracts some number of bots and fakes. It’s a matter of proportion; if their share of your pie gets too large, they impact your performance on the platform.
These signs indicate that your business pages may have a fake/bot problem:
1. Comments Left on Your Content Seem Generic or Fake
As mentioned earlier, certain social media bots are programmed to seek out content topics or hashtags and automatically comment on these topics, regardless of the content of the post.
The easiest fake/bot comments to spot are overtly sales-focused and off topic. They may also ask for the personal information of other commenters or ask for personal information within the posts on their profile pages. While some of these social media bots are created to drive sales to legitimate businesses, many are phishing scams.
The generic comments are harder to detect. Often, these comments make sense in context but are so generic that they add no value to the conversation. Pattern and repetition tip the hand; look for them.
Does the user paste the same copy multiple times on your posts and on similar user posts? Probably a bot. Is the suspect content slightly off the exact topic of the post? Probably a bot. For example, if you post a photo of a piece of machinery in action in your shop and a user responds, “What a beautiful dog!” that isn’t a real human.
2. Many of Your Followers aren't in Your Target Audience or “Look Fake”
Nobody has time to inspect every follower. But even a quick glance through your follower list can tell you a lot about the makeup of your audience.
Where do your followers live? If you're a local business and a significant portion of your social media audience resides overseas, you might have a problem with your audience. Most fake social media profiles say they are in India, Bangladesh, Chile, Brazil, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Pay special attention to followers from these countries if you don't regularly market to these locations. If you're an international organization, make sure that your followers are in countries where you regularly do business.
On Facebook, you can see a breakdown of your follower locations by viewing the People tab under Insights. LinkedIn and Twitter have similar audience breakdown features in their analytics.
Many social media bots or fake followers populate profile photo fields with stock images. Scan through your followers to check for stock photos.
3. Your Engagement Is Really, REALLY Low
Many things can cause low engagement. Organic social media engagement has been dropping year over year for quite some time, so even very successful pages can have a low percentage of their audiences engage with their posts on a regular basis.
But very low engagement, combined with any of the above warning signs, indicates that a significant chunk of your audience isn’t legitimate.
How You Can Help
Automated Social Media Clean-Up
Very few platforms allow for automated account deletion of suspect followers. Facebook and Instagram treat third-party social media clean-up tools as bots; they can get you banned from the platform. Use at your own risk.
Twitter, on the other hand, does allow some forms of contact clean-up. Some third-party content scheduling tools have this feature built in, allowing users to either find or even remove suspect accounts.
Even if you use a tool, take a manual look through your followers. Since engagement is a metric of these tools, they could flag users who have just joined and haven’t yet engaged.
Ensure that any tool you choose is approved to be used by the platform you're using it on. Instagram in particular requires pre-approval to connect a third-party app to your account. If you don't use pre-approved tools, you could be breaking the platform’s terms of service.
Manual Social Media Clean-Up
Manual clean-up is often the best clean-up. This will take time, but if you remove even a portion of the fake profiles, you can clean up your social media and pare down to a more targeted audience.
When manually cleaning, look for the common signs of a fake account mentioned earlier, including:
- A location outside of your target audience
- Stock photography in the profile photo or cover image
- Overly sales-focused content
Access to your contact list differs on each the platform. But all require you to report them and ban them from your page.
On Facebook, open your page settings and select People and Other Pages from the options. There you’ll see a list of all your page followers.
Check the users you would like to delete and select Remove from Page Followers and Ban from Page from the settings.
On Instagram, open your profile and click on the number of followers you have below your username to get a list of all your followers.
Once you click your list of followers, a pop-up will allow you to remove them from your page.
On Twitter, find all your followers by selecting Followers from the top bar on your profile page.
You'll have the option to block and report each follower by clicking on the three vertical dots next to the name in your listing.
Ongoing Social Media Clean-Up
The best way to keep a clean social media follower list? Keep an eye on followers as they join your page. Watch for the warning signs of a fake social media follower or social media bot and remove them as they join, before they get out of hand.
The initial manual clean-up process may be arduous; picking them off as they join is easier. And you can start doing that today.