How credible are social media influencers?

With brands using them to promote products and services, they have a bunch of sly tricks up their sleeve

One of the biggest achievements on social media is to have a million followers and become famous as an influencer.

So who is an influencer? It is someone with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service.

How do influencers get so many people to follow them? Are there really that many people out there who are actually swayed by these influencers? Industry insiders are sceptical.
Many followers, they say, are not organic. The influencers pay a third-party agent to increase their followership to impress brands to hire them.

So if you’ve ever noticed an account that had 100 followers one day and  10,000 the next, there is a good chance the influencer spent good money to buy followers. In the social media world, those people are called ‘fake influencers’.

Fakes exposed
Indian influencers have the third-highest number of fake followers, likes and engagement in the world. According to Diet Influencer (@DietInfluencer), a social media account that exposed fake accounts, India might overtake Brazil and USA in this respect soon.

The team exposed many fake influencers active on Instagram. The influencers stopped posting when followers reported the scam and got Instagram to block them for a year. Since then, the account has been staying low. When Showtime approached them, they didn’t want to speak over the phone. They didn’t even want to reveal their names.

In September, YouTuber Scherezade Shroff (Sherry) uploaded a video called ‘Are Influencers Scamming You?’ and highlighted some ugly truths of the social media world. From the way Instagram users buy followers to how brands approach influencers, she covered it all.


Sometimes brands send expired products and expect influencers
to promote them, says brand consultant and 
blogger Rumana Nazarali. 
(Above) A sponsored post she did with Modern Breads

“Brands approach someone just by looking at the number of followers they have. The higher the number, the more opportunities you get. In a way, it’s unfair to the ones who have genuinely built their audience organically, and not paid to build your fan base overnight,” says Sherry.

There are three main players in this business: the brand (product or service), the agency (hired by the brand to get influencers to endorse the brand) and the influencers (who use the product or service and sell it to their audience via social media).

Often,  influencers selling a product don’t use it enough to know whether it is good or bad. This is usually in the case of beauty products.

Good looks and numbers
Rumana Nazarali, brand consultant and blogger, who often advertises products to her followers, says a product must be used for at least three weeks before it can be promoted. “There have been many instances where my face has broken out because the product was bad,” she says.

“Sometimes they send you expired products and still expect you to sell it to your audience,” she adds. Some influencers take up any product that comes their way as they are bound by a contract and want to get paid.

Influencers are also required to follow a set of other rules like wearing brand colours, using the brand name a number of times within the short clip, and posting at a certain time and place.

Diet Influencer says most brand heads and senior management don’t understand social media or how it works. “They use it only because everyone else does. Most of them aren’t even on Instagram but they think of it as a medium. They can’t tell a fake profile from a real one and they don’t understand the metrics behind the app’s algorithm,” they say.
The agencies go by some criteria when they choose influencers — number of followers, engagement and good looks. “I have been rejected by brands because they don’t think I am good-looking enough. They want the face of the brand to be of conventional beauty,” says Rumana.

The agencies don’t usually bother about the authenticity of the numbers as brands aren’t particularly knowledgeable about how it all works.

A business partnership
“The ideal way to go about this is to know the brand you’re working with and if the product or service they provide makes sense to your set of audience,” says Alicia Souza, freelance illustrator and social media influencer.

“When everything is digital today, partnering with brands is a way of running your business. It’s part of your income. But when you are an influencer and when people await your recommendation, you have a social responsibility to them as well,” she says. 

Unlike other mediums, there are no guidelines about what you can promote on social media.

“You can even promote alcohol on your Instagram account and no one would question it. It’s up to the account holder. I personally wouldn’t do it because I have followers who are teenagers. I don’t want to influence them even though I do drink. I also wouldn’t promote fairness creams. So when brands do approach me, I straightaway tell them no,” says Sherry.
Some brands don’t want people to know it’s a paid promotion. While many influencers have started disclosing if it is a paid partnership — sometimes by using the hashtag #ad — not all brands want that announced. 


Freelance illustrator Alicia Souza says partnering with brands
is a way of running the influencer business. But, she cautions, the influencer
has the social responsibility not to fool their audience.

Alicia explains, “When you use ‘paid partnership with XYZ brand’ on your post, the brand also has to approve it from their end. If they don’t, either you make it look like you use the product regularly or be honest with your followers and let them know that it’s an advertisement by using a hashtag.”

Celebs do it too
It’s not just regular people who’ve become influencers that buy fake followers, likes and comments. Celebrities do it too.

Sometimes, fans pitch with the money to increase followers’ numbers. All you need is the username, and the third-party agent will do the rest.

Rumana says, “To reduce competition, there have been cases where influencers use third-party agents to increase the followers of their competitor’s account. The followers immediately notice and accuse the person of being fake.” The idea, she says, is to discredit the competition.

The vicious cycle continues.

“People started following the influencer because they thought of them as someone relatable. Now followers can see through the promotional gimmicks and don’t care for any of these campaigns. But then the cycle needs to continue, hence the influencers keep buying more and more engagement to look relevant,” says team Diet Influencers.

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