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People Are Turning Their Instagram Accounts into Bots (buzzfeed.com)
144 points by marban 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

This is why algorithmic based curation/display of content is a bad thing, it can be gamed. Show me the accounts I follow in chronological order and the only way it can be gamed is if those accounts continually post over and over again to push their content to be the most recent - and that's easy to fix: limit the number of posts to one per hour.

As a photographer Instagram is pretty much over as a platform for me, there is very little content on there now I would call "photographic" other than a few accounts I follow, but those are shown out of order and with ads mixed in-between. The explore page has become a mass of memes, "viral" videos, half naked women, spam, reposts from reddit, reposts of other reposts, and so on. I can see the same content multiple times on the explore page, reposted over and over. I recently unfollowed most of the accounts to put an end to the "such and such liked this so we will show it to you" as well.

And of course, as per the article, you have a massive amount of accounts that are liking and following to try to get followers in return. Some of these are more obvious than others. If you use Tinder you'll have seen an increasing trend of matches wanting you to follow them on Instagram, because they want to up their follower count.

All that said, I'm guilty of this too. I have a personal Instagram account that I do very little with[1], but also an account for the gallery I volunteer at[2] to try to spread the word to people in the area - I have a script that will like + follow anyone that posts to Instagram with tags and/or a location in the village. This script has been running once a day for about 6 months, and I believe it has brought some people into the gallery.

I also run an events page on Instagram[3] with a script that will like + follow any content tagged with various programming related keywords. Looking at some of the accounts it's followed (or have followed us back) it's bizarre - you can see accounts in which the content is just someone posting images of their laptop once a day and they have follower counts in the tens of thousands.

Anyway, it feels as if Instagram is at a tipping point. It's no longer a platform for photography but now a platform for driving traffic to other businesses. I'd give it another year or two before it collapses in on itself or they do a root and branch purge of all the spam, which probably won't happen as long as it is driving revenue to Instagram/Facebook itself.

[1] https://www.instagram.com/leejebay/ [2] https://www.instagram.com/galeriealpine/ [3] https://www.instagram.com/perl_events/

What you described sounds exactly like the arc of Facebook, only forced to its natural conclusion at a much faster pace.

FB started as a network for college students. Then once it expanded to the general public it turned into a gold rush of businesses trying to grab attention. FB slowly turned into the AOL of its day--a captive portal where people largely ignored the rest of the web. Why check the news on a publisher's site when I can just scan headlines while waiting for my friends' updates?

I remember a time before every website decided they needed a Twitter/Facebook button, before coffee cups were plastered with those app icons next to the store's brand. The whole thing seemed strange and desperate as it was happening.

Now the lag between "cool new social medium" to "spam/meme repository" is fast enough that I don't even have to bother. Anything fun and user-focused on the web ends up getting bought and repurposed to serve ads.

> The explore page has become a mass of memes, "viral" videos, half naked women, spam, reposts from reddit, reposts of other reposts, and so on. You can heavily influence what you see in the discover view, and I do so regularly to get more photography related content. View the content that annoys you, click on the three dots in the upper right and then tap ~"view less of this" (only loosely translated, don't know what it says exactly). Do this for 15 posts that you don't want to see, view and like the few photography related posts that you wanna see more of and this will completely change what kind of content you will get! Takes about maybe 3 sessions of doing this for seeing greatly improved results. The algorithm learns to give you posts which you give attention to, so try to avoid looking at memes etc; I have the same problem and with some time and me giving some attention to memes again brings more of them back - so rinse and repeat. You can actually use this to influence quite specifically what you want to see - from time to time I pick a specific theme of photography I want to discover (i.e. black and white photography with lots of elevated blacks), only like those kind of pictures in the discover view and definitely start getting way more of these kinds as a result. You can absolutely create your own bubble, you just have to tell Instagram what you wanna see.

I wonder if future archeologists will think "like" and "follow" and "subscribe" are some kind of (useless) currency.

21st century Tulip Mania.

Why wait? I already feel they're useless...

But not currency, is it? Maybe social currency.

I realize that activity and content are what media sites need, but the publish / subscribe model that celebrity accounts reinforce is the antithesis of anything social. I shutdown my Twitter because there is near zero interaction on there. In the same sense, Facebook is very much a media sharing platform, rather than a social platform to connect with people.

I would like to see a paid social network with zero tolerance for programmatic interaction. Maybe tied to a (non voip) phone to make the cost of shill accounts high. I do feel there is a chance to unseat the major sites right now, it just requires a site that provides meaningful interaction instead of ads and corporate interest.

Where do you get this idea that Twitter has near zero interaction? There is tons of interaction on Twitter. Obviously if you follow a bunch of celebrity accounts you will personally not see a lot of interaction. I mostly follow friends and/or people who post about hobbies I enjoy and interact with them frequently.

I specifically did not follow celebs. My tweets would generally get 1 or 2 likes, maybe about 60 impressions, and the occasional reply from one of a few friends. I would still end up seeing celeb accounts through the your friend follows and your friend liked feature.

It's definitely a matter of who you're following/who follows you, that's true of any site.

IG/FB very much actively encourages (with their newsfeed algorithms, and to an extent also the UI) 'influencer'-type accounts over individual communication. Twitter imo is significantly less bad about this.

I like following programmer fellaz. Even tho half of it promotes its tutorials, its still good to see full of stuff about programming, whats going on around. And there is good amount of interaction on open source, react, graphql related people as far as I see.

Twitter is more like a mouse clicking game with very little interaction per mouseclick.

They still haven't implemented threading and free third party native clients.

It would be great if peers competed on features, anti-bot tactics, reliability, etc. Perhaps large social sites should be working on an open social data interchange protocol instead of asking for protected regulation.

Free the game instead of enshrining the players.

Closed social network platforms and protocols exhausterbated consolidation. They disallow competition. The market is hostile. The market will not standardize, and actively worked against it (RSS).

Open the protocols. Let the kid down the street compete with Facebook again.

Let me pay $5/mo for a small player in Norway to host a custom Whateverstadon with strict peering rules. Let DNS be the registry.


Please tell me you used this word on purpose.


Is the perfect word for how a man or a woman feels after browsing Facebook/Twitter/Reddit!

> In the same sense, Facebook is very much a media sharing platform, rather than a social platform to connect with people.

Agreed. A couple years ago, I set my parents, wife’s parents, and a few others up with Raspberry Pis

I manage their setups with Ansible

They have syncthing and we can put photos on our local Pi using SMB apps on our phones

We can browse to them and view our latest adventures through a minimal HTML/CSS/JS viewer I borrowed from github

These services are a joke. Building huge data centers doesn’t serve users. It services their analytics/ad business

The IT world has lost a lot of credibility with me for supporting this nonsense. Bad craftsmanship, self aggrandizement rhetoric, gregarious antics... fuck off

Emotional capture of 20-something grads with notions of being the next Bezos or Gates

Most will end up cube workers like their buddies that went to business school: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16946951

Can you elaborate on the set up? How are they syncing with one another?

I think you're right. The money quote from the article: "The damage is done on a very large level because nothing is genuine." Various family members have tried to get me to join social networks over the years, starting with Facebook, then Twitter, then Snapchat, Instagram, and I don't what all.

But after watching them use these platforms, it seemed to me that it's all just churn of useless junk. Even Youtube has degraded considerably. Maybe someday someone will figure out how to achieve the apparently conflicting goals of wide adoption, quality content, civil interactions, and monetization.

I’d call that a bar or cafe, with the lite version being a couple of coffees.

Sounds like project management: quality, time, budget, pick one..

Devil's advocate after 10 seconds of thought. Is this _really_ a bad thing for the users? I mean, you don't have to follow accounts you don't enjoy following. Just black and yellow squares? Don't follow it. If you enjoy the content, does it matter if the account is run by bots? Even on the explore page, Instagram seems to do fairly well with showing you pictures of things you like - I see a ton of cats, burgers and watches. I don't really care if the accounts are run by bots... They're just pretty pictures. As for my feed, it's my friends or people I've chosen to follow. Whether they're posting themselves or via a cron job on a raspberry pi, I don't really care. If I did, I'd unfollow.

The problem is also around people artificially liking and commenting on your own posts (if they are public). I had encountered this last year when I was running a photography project and I would have to deal with fake accounts posting on every image. Each would post one of the following messages: 'Nice! Check out my page!', 'Wow! Cool pic. Want to increase your followers, click the link in my profile.", "Very nice. Follow back".

I don't want that spam in my image comments (considering there would only be 1 or 2 comments from real people and 10+ of these). I had to go through and manually delete them, block the users (achieving nothing because there are so many of these spammers).

This is a serious UX problem that has turned me away from Instagram (which was the "best social media" platform before they destroyed the chronologic timeline). I don't care if people are using an API to post legitimate content (I would have loved the ability to post content to multiple sites at once (twitter, IG, ...)). I care when the API enables annoying spammers.

This is not so much a ux problem as an "marketeers gonna marketeer" problem. It happened before with blog comments, it happens now with "social" media, it'll happen with whatever comes next. If it's remotely exploitable for personal gain, there's going to be people exploiting it.

It's not about following bots, it's about participating in a mutual boosting scheme.

As the article states, visibility and 'fame' on Instagram is directly related to Like-count and follower numbers. And for many photographers that visibility leads to work.

So if they have to permit their account to be botted to give Likes to other accounts but receive similar benefit in return, they do so.

That didn't really answer the question. I think the user understood the article, just asking for clarification on why this negatively impacts the experience of users on the platform.

Algorithm gaming and non-organic engagement go hand in hand. A cheeky reading is that juicing sites like Fuelgram are providing a valuable service for their customers. If this is problematic, consider what will happen when Instagram bans them: the demand won't go away, instead the same people will be paying Instagram more, to place their ads wider. For the user, the end result is largely the same.

This is all a numbers game: there's a finite amount of attention-slots in people's minds that everyone wants their content to fit in. Any engine that surfaces unsolicited content will have this issue, from paid ads to algorithmic recommendations.

My wife has about 20,000 followers on Instagram, most of them fake because she was tricked into buying them through "free" Instagram filters apps.

It's so interesting watching the activity generated every time she makes a post, the number of push notifications that come through within minutes is incredible. As well, the comments are often absurd on her posts.

It's so obvious to a non-Instagram user (ie. me) that there is a tremendous number of bots going around, the fact that Facebook doesn't do something to eradicate the bots indicates to me that they're afraid to reveal the true numbers to their investors and advertisers, otherwise it would drastically affect their income.

> 22-year-old kids

Kids are getting older every year it seems.

Man, this article makes me feel old and out of touch. I don't understand so many things about it. Why would someone pay to have a bot click "like" on them, and why would someone invest $X000 in a list of usernames and passwords rather than create their own free accounts? Why are "followers" worth money? Can someone ELI5 me the chain of money that makes any of this activity make any sense at all?

One would pay $100k for an account with the username "fitness" because it's artificially scarce, like a domain name. There's plenty of people searching for "fitness" on IG.

A list of usernames and passwords it's useful if you use a program to manage them - automatically. Spam detection is super good nowadays, so it's super hard to create many accounts and keep them alive. Actually, keeping them alive it's the harder segment of it.

Fake followers = fake accounts. They're worthless. But some people don't care and just like to inflate their followers number because people think its cool to have many followers. Aslong as they can't tell they're fake tho.

Real followers = real persons following you because they like you. They're valuable. Why? Like any other advertising model where you're the publisher, you get paid per impression/post/sale/click/whatever. E.g you can share a photo where you're holding a certain brand of whisky and you get paid by said brand (to get brand to pay you, they either contact you directly or you partner with some agency) or you can promote your own company as well obviously. . You can also share a link in the bio.

> Fake followers = fake accounts. They're worthless.

Pardon my ignorance but I thought the more followers and engagement you have on Instagram the more you can charge for a sponsored post or product placement?

Thats my understanding as well and fake followers can also be exchanged for a perceived social importance not just monetary value.

Example: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/aug/26/how-many-...

It's all about advertising and influence. Having a higher # of followers makes you look more attractive/popular. It's like the "halo effect".

It's common to see fitness coaches and C-List celebrities to have lots of followers but very few likes/comments, which is a common sign of the user buying followers.

At times I joke on irc that I could write a bot that makes more interesting conversation than the people there.

Is that guy running the bot farm not afraid of legal action from Instagram? I'm not well versed but it seems like something they could go after him for. I wouldn't be spouting off about it to buzzfeed, that's for sure.

From what I can tell they "deprecated immediately" (on April 4, 2018) a whole bunch of API endpoints that (probably) make this sort of thing impossible.

...which is unfortunate since I went and signed up on Instagram so I could play with their API to see how hard it would be to detect bots with a little python-fu.

It now looks like you have to have a facebook business account to be able to "game" instagram -- maybe?

I don't want to like viral hippo, but I certainly do like the smarts behind it.

It reminded me of a "mad cow disease" word document we shared around the place back in the 90s, which had a picture of a cow with VB rolling eyes..

This reminds me a lot of doping in sports. With seemingly normal people justifying it with "everyone is doing it so you have to do it to level the field" with a complete disregard for the ethical side of it.

The problem is that Instagram incentivizes this sort of behaviour by greatly-diminishing the reach of those companies/users that have legitimately built their followers. I mean we see 10% reach of our followers (if we're lucky) with any of our posts. That means 90% of our real followers don't get to see our posts that they have asked to see (by following our account).

This should be quite easy to detect, given that it is a closed group of accounts liking each other.

The main problem is what to do then. Instagram may not want to ban influential bloggers.

I have an Instagram account and I have noticed that most of the likes I get are from the accounts of real people but that most of the likes I get are obviously automated and insincere.

Personally I find it infuriating that people do this.

Abusing the "like" mechanism is neither clever nor acceptable. It is a nuisance and it devalues the platform a lot.

Some of the photos and videos I post are mainly for myself and a few of my friends.

Some of the other videos I post because I want people from the whole world to see them.

The ones that are targeted at my friends I post with a short description and only one or two hashtags at most.

The ones that I want people from the whole world to see I add a handful of relevant hashtags to, so that people browsing those tags have a chance to see those things.

The pattern I have seen is that random accounts will randomly like previous posts of mine. Sometimes they like the sort of post that is discoverable via a popular hashtag but just as often I get likes on the images that you only find by coming to my profile -- the sort of images that is obviously of very little actual interest to anyone but myself and a few of my friends. In particular, I should say; most often these are accounts whose description state the profession of the person, and whose photos and videos tend to either revolve around that thing as well, or they post memes. Typically the profession of the person falls into one of three categories;

1. Musician. I post some music stuff and I follow some musicians. Almost certainly the people organizing the like-spamming have set it up so that if you are a musician and you ask them to like-spam for you, they have a list of other musicians with lots of followers and they use the lists of the followers of those people to find people interested in music that they can like-spam.

2. Personal Trainer.

3. Marketing person.

I report fake accounts when I see them but when it comes to the accounts of real people you only know that the majority of them are spamming but you can't know whether a single individual is like-spamming or actually leaving sincere likes.

Hence whenever I get likes from people that I don't know, I must assume that they are just spam-likes but at the same time I have no recourse.

The fact that I must assume they are all spam-likes is what devalues the likes for me.

The spam-likers have literally driven the value of a like to zero. When someone likes something I posted it should have been positive for me, but unless I know the person it's not because I know that there is an overwhelming probability that it's just another insincere fake like.

I hope that anyone and everyone partaking in the fake liking gets their account banned eventually. But if that even ever happened, which it won't, that would be so far into the future that in all likelihood I've already left Instagram for some other platform because I don't know how much longer I am going to bother maintaining a presence on Instagram.

Oh and another equally, or perhaps even more annoying thing that is being done is accounts that follow you and then some hours or days later they unfollow you. Because they never intended to follow you in the first place; they intentionally do this so that you will follow them back, hoping you will either not notice that they unfollow you or that you'll still keep following them even if you do notice. Rude!

As for what Instagram could do about this, it's not trivial but I think they could be doing more about it than they are currently. At the very least, the latter pattern of those I mentioned (frequently following and then unfollowing heaps of people) should be quite obvious to the people at Instagram if they cared.

I feel the same. I just had a bot liking my 5 most recent posts in a row although they are very different from each other.

The follow-unfollow pattern is done by bots controlling accounts as well I think.

Making the likes anonymous, as on reddit or HN, would be a big step forward.

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