Last year Vogue US fashion editors came out all guns blazing when they published a conversation on what they called fake, "pathetic", bought-and-paid-for street stylers attending fashion weeks.

“Looking for style among a bought-and-paid-for (‘blogged out?’) front row is like going to a strip club looking for romance. Sure, it’s all kind of in the same ballpark, but it’s not even close to the real thing,” was only one of the harsh comments made in this piece.

But influencers shot back, calling the editors hypocrites and slaves to advertisers. 

So what is the fight about?

Today, the fashion and beauty industry in particular are increasingly choosing influencers over editors to attend their events and promote their products – both locally and around the world – as influencer platforms have become coveted advertising spaces.

But because so much of social media life and status is just smoke and mirrors, a lot of so-called influencers have been coining it off empty promises and fake followings.

So what is the true test of an influencer and how do we distinguish the real ones from the fakes?

The experiment

Cape Town bloggers Candice-Lee Kannemeyer of In My Bag and Leigh van der Berg of Lipgloss is My Life have been in the beauty game for a long time. And over the years, they have painstakingly grown their followings on various social media platforms. But the material on their blogs remained the fundamental foundation of their content offering.

The beauty eds say it took about 5 or 6 minutes to buy 1000 followers. You basically Google it. And it cost a meek R122 ($9).

They were recently featured on Memeburn because of an experiment where they created a fake Instagram account in order to show how easy it was to buy or boost your following.

The fake account (@fake_fake_fake1981), now 21 pics strong purposely features dismal content. Low quality images of things like shoes next to an actual pile of dog poo.

Saxy.

While funny, it is also telling, since the experiment showed just how easy it can be to artificially inflate your following and boost your appeal for brand sponsorship.

...it took about 5 or 6 minutes to buy 1000 followers.

“(We wanted) to show brands how easy it is to create a fake IG account and buy followers, likes and comments. Comments that you can actually customise!” says Kannemeyer.

Van der Berg adds: “We've recently noticed a big influx of social media 'influencers' who’ve suddenly stormed the arena with huge followings and it's frustratingly clear that their followers have been bought, something that's been confirmed by experts working at digital agencies. Having to attend launches and sit next to shameless Insta-fakers who essentially take the brand for a ride is incredibly insulting to someone who's got a smaller, but legitimate following," says van der Berg.

How to fake it

The beauty eds say it took about 5 or 6 minutes to buy 1000 followers. You just Google it. And on some platforms it costs as little as R122 ($9).

You can also buy 100 or more likes per post – which they did and used it on a blank picture...

#UltimateBlah

A post shared by @fake_fake_fake1981 on

 “...many of the bots garnered are 'real' accounts but from people who've abandoned their Instagram account or follow so many people won't realise they're now following a new user, so when you run 'authenticity' checks the bots aren't picked up. Our very fake Instagram account for example has passed numerous tests declaring it is 90% real,” says van der Berg.

Adespresso.com notes that it's very easy to purchase followers, you tell the bot how fast it should run and it starts “generating” followers.

“The generation process is pretty much the same as what you would do yourself (find, follow, unfollow), but much faster.”

But is it legal? According to IG good user policy, buying followers is not illegal, yet it’s frowned upon.

How brands can spot accounts with fake followers

Of course many local and international influencers have reached an organic following by means of following various recipes. But here's how to spot the fakers:

Mediakix.com reports that because Instagram is such a huge engagement platform, it is a great space for brand sponsorship opportunities. It notes that the best way for a potential sponsor to review whether or not the account they want to partner with has a fake following is to manually review the accounts following the "influencer".

Most spam-bot followers usually have no profile pic, follower accounts could have a very skewed follower-to-following ratio and relatively low engagement rates.

"I think the onus is on advertisers to become savvier as to whose audience is authentic and whose isn't. If you're using a faux influencer being followed by a mix of 230 000 bots and fake accounts you're only getting 1000 'real' eyes on your product.”

Kannemeyer also notes that these accounts with fake followings sometimes don't have a blog or website and hardly use any hashtags when posting.

But these are just a few of the many red flags, most of them will only check a few typical 'faker flag' boxes and not all of them.

More!