Last month, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was in the eye of the storm, with reports stating that automated bots were allegedly mass retweeting his tweets. It all started with Gandhi retweeting a Donald Trump tweet praising Pakistan with the caption, “Modi ji quick; looks like President Trump needs another hug”. Gandhi’s tweet reached 30,000 retweets, and his detractors were quick to raise questions over his Twitter followers and whether they were actually bots. In the world of social media, the number of followers determines your worth and popularity. The higher the number, the more valued an entity you become. ‘Influencers’ (who act as potential advertisers for brands), especially, are always on the lookout to increase their followers to boost their social media presence. And when there is demand, there is supply as well. There are several ‘digital media consultancies’ that proclaim to ‘sell’ followers. These organisations have turned this demand into a successful money-making venture. The website of one such Mumbai-based consultancy claims to provide followers, likes and comments on popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram for a pre-determined amount.
The prices quoted vary from Rs 385 for 1,000 ‘Indian’ followers on Facebook to Rs 335 for global followers—no time period is specified. The rates for Twitter and Instagram are Rs 290 and Rs 350, respectively. The most expensive category is that of ‘subscribers’ and ‘comments’ on YouTube: Rs 1,680 (for 1,000 subscribers) and Rs 1,350 (for 1,000 comments). When we posed as potential clients on the phone to one such consultancy, its founder, who did not want to be named, said, “Our starting package is 1,000 followers, but I can provide up to one lakh in 72-96 hours.” To test his claims, we decided to purchase 1,000 followers each on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram through an aspiring influencer’s social media handle, which cost us Rs 1,070 in total. This is how it all happened: after receiving our payment through an e-wallet, the consultancy got to work, and in a span of four-five hours, the number of followers on the handles provided shot up by 1,000 each. The profiles following the accounts seemed to be of active users, with updates, content and followers of their own.
But how viable is this situation? “Buying fake followers is always a risk. In fact, you may only have them for the next two-three months,” says Shobhit Pratap Singh, digital and social media marketing lead, Solomo Media, a social media marketing company. “Followers who are purchased are of three kinds: real users, manually-created fake IDs and multiple IDs created by bots,” Singh says, adding that bots IDs are the first to be culled by social media companies. Singh says moreover, social media giants such as Facebook and Instagram run codes periodically to weed out fake profiles and spam accounts. So when a user loses followers, it may push them into a vicious cycle of making another purchase to keep up the numbers. This is especially true for influencers, who are driven to buy followers on social marketing platforms to keep up their demand, Singh explains, saying this is a result of a boom in the e-commerce market. And since social media activity translates into money for influencers maintaining a decent following is very important.
“A basic user with a credible profile and substantial followers can be paid anywhere between Rs 50-Rs 500 per tweet or per post,” Singh says, adding that regular posts or tweets are managed by brand agencies, which want to create a buzz about their products and get more people talking about them. He gives the example of the strategy employed by a food delivery and restaurant search platform, which either invites influencers to review restaurants featured on its site or offers some remuneration for positive feedback. Having worked in the field for close to a decade, Singh attributes the advent of such marketing strategies to the growing disenchantment of the public with old-fashioned advertisements. Thus, hiring relevant influencers ensures that brands not only reach out to an audience, but “also help to generate a digital dialogue”. In fact, some influencers have now employed managers themselves to mediate on their behalf, says social media consultant Charu Tripathi.
“The managers coordinate everything, from prices for posts to dates,” says Mumbai-based Tripathi, who worked as a marketing consultant before quitting her job to start a blog on luxury brands called Le Hedonist. “Brands also send out freebies (free samples of their products) to these influencers in the hope that they will get featured on their social media handles.” For influencers, the number of followers is naturally just a metric they want to show. “It will reflect on the click rate (price paid for each click), engagement (likes and comments from users) and applause rate (virality) of the content,” says Tripathi.
One of the consequences of the e-commerce boom, Singh says, is tracking purchasing trends and targetting users based on their location, interest and gender. This, in turn, results in brands seeking popular influencers who, in turn, seek more popularity, creating a vicious cycle and an alternative business model that is being used to boost business by the sort of digital media professionals who sold us followers. “It’s a grey market after all. The legality of such a business is vague,” says Singh.