My Instagram account is public, which means anyone can see my posts, like them, and leave comments. It also means that every few days or so, I get followed by an account that's very clearly a fake, also known as a bot.
Most Instagrammers will recognise these fake followers: They typically have incomplete bios, only a few followers, and some really random photos, if any photos at all. But should you worry about these bots, or are they harmless?
In January, The New York Times exposed the massive business of buying and selling fake followers on social media. Some of these bots actually use real people’s likenesses (without their knowledge) and are employed to sway opinions, impact someone’s influence online, and scam unwitting users. Buying them is cheap — just $90 will get you 1,000 — and ridiculously easy (Google "buy Instagram followers," and you're inundated with options).
Bots make ideal fake followers, since they can follow a large number of accounts at once. There is no shortage of them online: In early 2017, data security company Imperva released its bot report, finding that bots accounted for 51.8% of all online traffic the year prior. Good bots made up 22.9% of that total; but bad bots, including ones that cracked passwords or carried viruses, accounted for 28.9%.
That 28.9% is cause for concern.
“The risks of being followed by a bot outweigh the benefits,” says Pete Hunt, the CEO of Smyte, a company that fights online fraud. ”Odds are the bot is benign, most likely connecting with you to make itself appear more realistic. However, bots are also used to attack people. The bot may be friending you so it can send you private messages with spam or phishing attempts.”
While it is not always easy to spot a bot — some of the ones mentioned in the Times article defied any easy characterisation — Hunt suggests a few identifiers to look out for:
“Bot accounts are often brand new. A lot of times their profile information is incomplete," he says. "Another telltale sign is if the profile doesn't have many connections, especially if it has been around for while. You can also check their activity for clues. Look at what they're posting and how many posts they've made. If something doesn't add up, you are likely dealing with a bot.”
So what should you do when you get a notification that a bot is following you? It might seem like an annoying or even unnecessary chore, but it’s important to report bots to Instagram. Go to the bot's profile, tap the three dots in the upper righthand corner, and select “Report.” This will also do the work of blocking the account from your follower list.
This isn't a foolproof solution to getting rid of bots altogether — report one and another just pops up to fill its place — but it will help you keep your own account safe. That's more important than any number of followers.