Sixty-nine percent of American adults use social media in some form. From Facebook to Instagram, Snapchat to YouTube, social media platforms connect family, friends, and strangers in a way that is unprecedented in the annals of human history. But with this exchanging of words, images, and ideas – oftentimes behind a pseudonym and an avatar – comes a greater risk of connecting with bad actors intent on committing fraud online.

Of equal concern is the army of bots that infest many social platforms: fake accounts that are often created using full names, profile photos, and even biographical information stolen from real users. Anyone can purchase them to artificially boost their follower count and engagement on their posts, or to automate their likes and comments, which only exacerbates the issue of not knowing who is a real person on the internet.

It’s currently unclear what the bot-to-human ratio is on social media; estimates for Twitter range from 9-15% to as high as 40-60% of users believed to be bots, but some accounts could merely be inactive, were once legit accounts that have been taken over by hackers, or are burner/troll accounts that belong to real people.

Bots are wreaking havoc on social media, creating toxic environments filled with abusive content and making it difficult for both regular users and companies to know who they can trust online.

Fraud on Social Media: Not Your Parents’ Internet Spam

Wondering why you’re receiving friend requests on Facebook from people you don’t know? Keep getting followed on Instagram by strange accounts with usernames advertising free followers or Pokémon Go coins? What’s with the generic, sometimes out-of-place comments on your photos? Bots, bots, and more bots are likely to blame, but they’re not just annoying – they’re often trying to lure you into clicking on links to malicious content or fraudulent websites.

It takes just a few minutes of scrolling through posts on Instagram to run across comments advertising pirated movies and porn, often written in strange fonts or with poor grammar. Those are the most obvious examples of dangerous content you shouldn’t click on, but spam is also getting more creative and more difficult to detect. The following comments often appear on my own fashion-related Instagram photos (and on the photos of other users with fashion accounts), almost exclusively from pages claiming to sell sunglasses and bohemian jewelry:

These stock comments appear with such frequency and regularity that the chance of them being posted via a bot is very high. elisahotmiamishades’ Instagram page has a link to Hot Miami Shades’ official Instagram page, which has 70,000 followers; going through the comments is a journey in weirdness, as the majority of them are users tagging other users and many of the users are tagging their secondary or backup accounts. The comments also reveal a number of people complaining about the brand being impossible to get hold of, products never arriving or being of poor quality, or their “ambassador program” being a scam:

Going to Hot Miami Shades’ website reveals that it’s powered by Shopify, a platform that has struggled – like so many marketplaces – with thousands of shops cropping up that sell poor quality, wholesale Chinese goods, mark them up in price astronomically, and misrepresent the product in ads on social media by posting photos of similar products that are of higher quality than what the store is actually selling.

The BBB has given Hot Miami Shades an F rating based on customer reviews and complaints; customers claim the brand’s ambassador program involves making a purchase from their site, and in exchange they will be featured on the brand’s Instagram page to receive exposure and followers, as well as invites to celebrity-studded parties and red carpet events in Miami. Customers have received cheaply made goods that don’t appear to be the same products for sale on Hot Miami Shades’ site and receive no response from the brand when they reach out for refunds, which the brand doesn’t allow.

While Boho Queen Jewelry doesn’t have a BBB rating, a Google search of the brand reveals YouTube videos and blog posts from angry customers accusing the company of making similar unfulfilled promises regarding their ambassador program, not delivering products customers purchased, and getting away with their money.

These types of businesses run rampant throughout social media, powered by the speed and frequency with which bots comment on posts; humans can only comment on so many posts on a given day, limiting how widespread their advertising reach can be. Bots allow for faster, automated engagement across thousands of accounts at once – and enables fraudulent businesses to lure in and scam more users more quickly than a human can.

A Breakdown of Trust

Illegitimate businesses aren’t the only entities benefitting from the use of bots; some influencers are buying bot followers and subscribers to artificially pad their numbers, which makes them more appealing to brands that are looking for popular influencers to collaborate with in marketing campaigns.

Influencers can’t sway mindless bots to purchase a product, but influencers that are buying their audience are often doing so to reap the financial benefits of being perceived as more popular than they are – which can include monetary compensation, as well as free product. This undermines the effectiveness of influencer marketing, which relies on said influencer to sway their audience to purchase a product that was provided to them by a brand in exchange for a video or post about the product on social media. It’s a dishonest practice and companies are becoming savvy to it and refusing to work with influencers that have fake followers. These influencers make it more difficult for both users and companies to know who is trustworthy on social media.

Buying bots isn’t a victimless action; supporting the market for bot production increases the need for more stolen information to create these fake accounts. It also makes it difficult for smaller influencers that are trying to grow their following legitimately and organically to get noticed on platforms like Instagram, where the algorithm favors recommending content with higher levels of engagement (which often goes hand in hand with having a larger audience). While social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter have policies against fake engagement, the platforms have been fighting an uphill battle in wiping out accounts that are pumped up by bots.

Fake listings and spammy content are the scourge of any site with user-generated content. Download our free content abuse kit, Stop Scams and Spam Before They Happen, to learn how social media platforms can proactively protect their users from abusive, fraudulent content.

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Angela Marrujo

Angela Marrujo, Content Marketing Associate at Sift, is a lifelong gamer with an appreciation of Nintendo, in particular. Illustration and music are her other passions. Angela is a San Francisco State University alumna and has worked in PR and marketing in the press release distribution and video game industries.