Mediadoping: how some social media influencers aren’t playing fair

I love Instagram. I spend a lot of time there, and I make some money from paid partnerships.

It’s one of a set of social media communication tools I use. I’ve worked hard on it, built a decent following, and I’ve recently got the coveted blue tick.

According to the UK’s Advertising Standards Association, if you have more than 30 000 followers you are counted as a ‘celebrity’ when it comes to endorsement rules – for example, you are not allowed to endorse pharmaceuticals. So I guess I fit into the bracket of Influencer.

The wine world has, along with other sectors, seen the rise of a bunch of influencers who aren’t from a traditional journalism/communication background. They are famous only on Instagram.

It’s great to see fresh voices. Wine companies have been looking for ways to reach younger drinkers who aren’t in the typical catchment area of established media, and these new Influencers offer a potential route. Some of them are excellent, and offer a fresh, fun take on the world of wine. PR companies are tracking these new voices and looking for ways to work with them.

But along with the positive attribute of acting as a platform for new forms of wine communication, Instagram has had a darker, murkier side. I’m dubbing it ‘mediadoping’.

It seems that many influencers aren’t playing fair, and have used illicit techniques to boost their engagement and popularity. Some do indeed play straight. But the sorts of tricks used by others need to be brought to the awareness of those who are funnelling budgets towards influencer marketing. [Currently many in the wine trade are simply ignorant, or are in denial – or are even in collusion.]

I have a horse in this race. While I’m doing quite well on Instagram it is frustrating to see Mediadoping occurring. There are three reasons I’m raising this as an issue. First, I’m competing with some people who have an unfair advantage, because they are cheating. Second, I genuinely feel for those younger influencers who have something interesting to say, but are falling behind because they are honest. And third, it’s a toxic ecosystem if young voices in wine feel that the only way to get ahead is to compromise their ethics and indulge in shady behaviour.

How do people game the system on Instagram? This article from Elle says it better than I can. It gives a clear, thorough explanation of the sorts of tricks being used.

These include:

Comment pods
This is where groups of instagrammers get together and agree to like and comment on each others’ posts. They join a WhatsApp chat or an Instagram group, and everyone on this Pod (also known as comment pods or engagement pods) agrees to engage with everyone else’s new posts. Back in 2016 Instagram changed from a chronological timeline (where posts from the people you follow show up in sequence on your timeline) to an algorithmic one. Instagram looks to promote more popular or engaging content on your timeline, and if someone has posted and it looks like this is a popular post because it rapidly garners lots of likes and comments, then it will likely be given preference in peoples’ feeds. Thus pods look to game the Instagram algorithm.

“One of the most tricky and morally subjective methods of ‘gaming’ the app is coerced engagement. This exists on a spectrum from appealing to your friend for an extra like, through to 100-member-strong groups – called ‘pods’ – generating bucketloads of inauthentic engagement by real people.”

Daisy Murray, Elle

Pods are incredibly common among wannabe influencers, and many people have built sizeable followings through pod activity. Look for an unusually large like count for an otherwise routine post, and under it hundreds of comments, many of a generic nature, or simply very brief.

One tactic that people use is to follow lots of people, in the hope that someone will follow back. Then a few days later they unfollow them. Or, in a twist on the theme, they will unfollow just those who haven’t followed back. It’s not illegal, but it’s shady behaviour that lacks authenticity. Easy to pick up if you use a social media auditing service (there are free ones out there).

Buying followers and comments
From the Elle article:

“A simple Google search provides offers as affordable as £1.63 for 100 likes, £2.45 for 100 followers and £23.73 for 100 custom-made (you can write them yourself) comments.”

This is clearly unethical behaviour.

Fake sponsored posts
This is an interesting twist. Some people fake sponsored content, because it looks like you are successful if you have someone paying you to post. They may use #sponsored or #advert as hashtags and make the post look like they are endorsing a product. Instagram have a facility where you are encouraged to mark sponsored content in the header (a paid partnership with…) which requires the sponsor to agree – this is the mark of a genuine sponsored post or story.

In conclusion? I’d love to see an end to mediadoping. The best way to discourage it is for those with marketing budgets to do a thorough audit of who they are thinking of working with. Is your client’s money buying them real visibility and genuine engagement, or is it supporting a fake ecosystem that has the illusion of true reach, but relies on gaming Instagram’s algorithm? There are some great fresh voices out there. Support the genuine ones.

For those more academically inclined, there’s a research paper looking at the prevalence and role of comment pods (‘reciprocity abuse’) on Instagram.