Why ‘fake it till you make it’ is a bad idea

Brands gain little from advertising with influencers with fake following

In Summary

• Fake accounts can like, share and comment on posts, but they cannot buy anything

Illustration of an influencer
Illustration of an influencer

What's the easiest way to measure the popularity of a celebrity, a radio station, a TV channel or a newspaper? The most common way of gauging popularity is by checking the number of followers.

Obviously, a social media account with one million followers is vastly more popular than another with just 2,000. For purposes of advertising, the number of followers is not enough. The next step in measuring popularity is the level of engagement.

Hootsuite, a social media analytics provider, describes social media engagement as the measurement of comments, likes and shares. Having a large number of followers with zero engagement is similar to having a crowd of people show up at a party but not talking with each other. Engagement is proof that the audience is interacting with your content.

Evidence is emerging that some prominent companies in Kenya are faking their social media engagement. One way they do that is by creating social media profiles that mimic real people. Have you ever visited a corporate social media page and wondered why some names keep appearing on all the posts? Have you ever wondered how such people get the time to be on social media all day and night?

If you visit the profiles of those individuals, you will find they exist only to boost engagement numbers. All they do is comment, share and like the social media posts of particular organisations, most likely those that paid for the service. Try engaging with those individuals directly and you will probably not get an answer because they are not real people.

This is a widespread problem in the Kenyan influencer market, cutting across all influencer categories, from politicians, musicians, bloggers to news anchors


Indeed, there is already a huge online marketplace that offers social media accounts to generate "engagement". To use the party analogy, it would be like seeing a well-attended event with people talking, laughing and dancing only to learn they were paid to be there.

Advertisers use social media influencers to promote various products and services. The bigger the following, the more attractive you are to advertisers. The growth of fake social media engagement is challenging that model.

One of the things that brand managers are complaining about is not seeing a significant increase in sales despite advertising with social media influencers. Fake accounts can like, share and comment on social media posts, but they cannot buy anything.

The most recent analysis of fake engagement in Kenya is by local firm Odipodev. In their analysis, they found that musicians (secular and gospel), socialites, comedians and radio personalities had the highest proportion of fake engagement in Kenya.

"This is a widespread problem in the Kenyan influencer market, cutting across all influencer categories, from politicians, musicians, bloggers to news anchors," the Odipodev team wrote. They recommend that advertisers closely examine the past performance of an influencer before engaging them in brand campaigns.

A report by a team of researchers in Spain found that the price of generating fake views on Facebook ranged from less than one US dollar (Sh134) to over $200 (Sh27,000) for 1,000 views. The going rate in 2022 for YouTube comments was $5 to over $130 (Sh672 – Sh17,000) per 1,000 comments.

Google business reviews start from $1.4 (Sh188) per review to as much as $18 (Sh2,400). It is possible to get 1,000 likes on Instagram for just $1.43 (Sh192).

Tripadvisor reviews, which are much sought after by hotels, restaurants and tourist sites, have prices ranging from $1 to $5 per review (Sh134 - Sh673). The findings are published in a 2022 report titled, "An Analysis of Fake Social Media Engagement Services."

Prices are determined by the quality of engagement. "The cheapest services are provided through bot-controlled low-quality accounts (accounts with no publications and no followers), whereas premium services offer customised and more real-looking accounts," reads part of the report. These fake engagement services are openly marketed in online forums.

The way social media collects and arranges posts for each viewer could be contributing to the problem. Social media companies changed their format from displaying content according to the time it was posted (chronologically) to displaying it based on calculations of relevance.


"As with Facebook and YouTube, Twitter now relies on a deep learning algorithm that has learned to prioritise content with greater prior engagement," says Chris Meserole, a director at the US-based Brookings Institute. Social media companies discovered that users are attracted to content that has already gotten a lot of retweets and mentions, compared with content that has fewer.

"If a tweet is retweeted, favourited or replied to by enough of its first viewers, the newsfeed algorithm will show it to more users, at which point it will tap into the biases of those users, too, prompting even more engagement," Meserole says.

Fake engagement encourages real people on social media to interact with a post. The social media algorithms notice the increased engagement and continue disseminating the content to more people, not knowing the initial engagement was faked.

TikTok is the latest craze on social media. As with the other platforms, a big market has developed for the sale of followers, likes and views for TikTok. The going rate for buying 100 followers averages around $4 (Sh530). Some websites offer followers for more or less than that average price.

As with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, cheap sources of TikTok followers will probably give you bots likely to be deleted from the system within a short time. More expensive websites offer fake but realistic-looking followers. Payment is done through bank cards, online cash transfer platforms and cryptocurrency.

As stated at the beginning of this article, there are signs that some well-known companies in Kenya have generated fake engagement by deploying bots on their social media pages. How can you tell if a social media influencer is not what he or she seems to be?

Look at the content. Hubspot, a provider of social media management tools, advises that influencers with lots of followers but terrible content probably do not have a legitimate following. Look at the profiles of individual followers, especially how they comment on various posts. If a social media page has the same people making meaningless comments on all the posts, you are most likely looking at fake engagement.

Social media advertising is now a huge industry. As with any industry, the prospect of making money attracts both good and bad players. Advertisers, therefore, have a responsibility to ensure they are dealing only with individuals or organisations that have genuine followers on social media.

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