Verified accounts turning themselves into bots, millions of fake likes and comments, a dirty world of engagement trading inside Telegram groups. Welcome to the secret underbelly of Instagram.
In late February, an Instagram account called Viral Hippo posted a photo of a black square. There was nothing special about the photo, or the square, and certainly not the account that posted it. And yet within 24 hours, it amassed over 1,500 likes from a group that included a verified model followed by 296,000 people, a verified influencer followed by 228,000, a bunch of fitness coaches, some travel accounts, and various small businesses. “I really love this photo,” one commented.
The commenter wasn’t a bot; nor were any of the accounts that liked the black square. But their interest in it wasn’t genuine. These were real people, but not real likes — none of them clicked on the like button themselves. Instead, they used a paid service that automatically likes and comments on other posts for them. Instagram says this is against its terms of service, but it continues to operate. It’s called Fuelgram and, for a few dollars a month and access to your Instagram log-in credentials, it will use the accounts of everyone who paid that sum to like and comment on your posts — and it will use yours to do the same to theirs.
In other words, Fuelgram creates fake engagement from real Instagram accounts. And it’s quite effective. Fuelgram makes posts appear more popular than they are, tricking Instagram’s algorithm into spreading them further, sometimes right into the service’s high-profile Explore tab. And there’s a reasonable chance there’s one in your feed right now, because Fuelgram is just one of a number of Instagram-juicing services available today, and the photo-sharing platform’s engagement-rewarding algorithm incentivizes people to use it.
“Fuelgram is an amazing tool for bloggers like me,” Eliza Armand, a fashion blogger followed by 86,000 people, told BuzzFeed News.
Amazing indeed. Viral Hippo, the BuzzFeed News–created Instagram account that used Fuelgram to rack up more than 1,500 likes on a photo of a black square, netted almost double that on a photo of a yellow square. It pulled in 1,400 likes on a diagram of the human sinus, and more than 1,200 on an accidentally shot photo of a hubcap. The likes were from real accounts.
“It’s not just Russian bots and hackers, it’s 22-year-old kids in their dorm rooms and influencers and brands of all sizes.”
For Armand and others like her, the additional Instagram exposure Fuelgram provides can be quite valuable. It can mean more ad dollars, or a shot at a modeling contract or a gig, or more inquiries for a business. And as Instagram has increased in popularity, Fuelgram and other similar services — including automated engagement trading groups on the secure messaging app Telegram and Facebook itself — have become must-haves for many looking to build a business or gain exposure on the internet.
Brands like Walmart, Kroger, and the skin treatment product Aquaphor showed up in sponsored, Fuelgram-juiced posts BuzzFeed News uncovered. Multiple Fuelgram users who liked Viral Hippo’s intentionally terrible posts liked these posts as well. The sponsored posts, an industry insider told BuzzFeed News, can fetch anywhere from $500 to $3,000 a pop. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment. Kroger did not comment. Aquaphor spokesperson Leslie Kickham told BuzzFeed News the company has severed its relationship with the Instagram influencer that was promoting its products.
“Fraudulent activity is bad for everyone. We have a strong incentive to prevent this kind of behavior on Instagram and staff a number of teams to detect fraudulent activity and shut it down,” Instagram spokesperson Gabe Madway told BuzzFeed News.
Asked if Instagram will disable Fuelgram, Madway declined to comment.
It is not at all that clear the people contacted for this story knew Instagram viewed Fuelgram as an enabler of fraudulent activity.
A Bot Factory In Your Palm
Sitting in his small, lofted bedroom in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, Kent Heckel picked up a palm-sized computer off a ledge next to his bed and explained how it’s home to more than 2,900 Instagram bots. The computer, called a Raspberry Pi, is a $35 hobby machine designed for students, teachers, and tinkerers. For Heckel, it’s been something else: a bot farm, delivering a stream of US-based likes to his Instagram account and the accounts of five paying clients.