Inside an Instagram Bot Farm

Fruzsina Eordogh

A spammer who sells fake social media followers for a living talks about the "Instagram rapture."

Photo: The Magic Tuba Pixie/Flickr

People want Instagram followers so much, they don't care if they're bots—because when it comes to social media, appearances are reality. The businessmen who are happy to oblige those desperate for fake followers are rolling in the monies but at the same time, they're locked in a weird arms race of algorithms—one where the bot farmers and social media platforms are constantly trying to outsmart the other.

The biggest battle right now is over Instagram, and one group of bot farmers is winning.

"Twitter racks $40-75 million a year, Facebook used to rack up to 100 million a year and Instagram racks more than both combined, in total, of all earnings from all sellers" said "Juice," a member of Rantic, a "social media marketing" group that sells fake followers.

But really, more than being a marketing company, Rantic is a social media bot farm—like, the bot farm. Buy any "likes" or "followers" or "retweets" or even YouTube video views from any of the countless online vendors hawking these services, and overwhelmingly, you'll end up using the bot accounts made by these guys. Especially if it's on Instagram, the hottest market right now.

Verifying any of the information Rantic provides is tricky (even determining the exact number of people I've talked to in Rantic is almost impossible), and then there is Rantic's reputation as hoaxer to remember. The numbers they quoted me seem plausible, however: in 2013, the New York Times reported that a million Instagram followers was selling for $3,700. One study quoted in the Times said that, conservatively, "fake Twitter followers offered potential for a $40 million to $360 million business." The the fake Facebook likes industry reportedly brought in $200 million in 2014.

Most of these businesses are located in developing countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines, with one farm in the Philippines employing 17 people. Rantic, however, says it is mostly staffed by young men in Europe, except for one in the United States, and has been selling bots since day one, before they became notorious for web pranks—which they've always maintained is their marketing strategy for their botting business.

"Bots warp and dilute the value of Instagram."

About eight months ago, Instagram made Rantic's job harder by cracking down on spam. The financial hit from the crackdown forced Rantic to get smarter. Before December 2014, says a Rantic guy going by "Jackpov," Instagram "had no spam filters." But then the great "Instagram Rapture" happened, in which at least 18 million suspect accounts were deleted. Some users lost more than 3 million fake followers, for example, including Justin Bieber.

"We were losing over 1 million accounts a day for a week," Juice told me. The monetary value of these lost bot accounts? "I would say in the six figures," said Juice.

By the end of the purge, Rantic lost 11 million of its 33 million bot accounts. The purge also allegedly wiped out its biggest competitor, a Russian who had 100 million fake accounts, according to Juice. To recover, Rantic has teamed up with a few Russians (not their rival, who hasn't been heard from since his botting operation was shut down) to build a "stronger bulletproof bot." He estimates Instagram currently has at least 45 million bot accounts on the platform as of right now.

Rantic claims to now know Instagram's algorithm, like what it looks for in determining if the account is real, which they say includes the number of posts, the type of default photo, the bio and even if the account makes comments. The new bots literally copy and paste other people's content, Juice said so "nobody, not even Instagram, can tell if they're fake," he told me.

Rantic has managed to create 13 million of these newer, improved bot accounts since December, he said, but in order to combat Instagram's filter, each new bot takes longer to make. Juice explained their old botting algorithm used to make up to 150,000 fake accounts a day, but now it only makes 10,000 to 50,000 a day because the bots "need more features now to look realistic." Their current 35 million bots "is not enough," said Juice, because "there are the rare big clientele that pay six figures for 5 to 25 million followers." People buy fake followers because "it increases organic following," he explained. "A person with more followers is more attractive."

Rantic's clientele includes politicians, celebrities and corporations, but most often, it's young women. To date, out of the "over 75,000 instagram clients" Rantic has claimed to service, 85 percent of their clients "are females 14-20 years old" said Juice.

Some of the information members provided me has been mentioned in interviews with them by the New York Times, Vocativ, and the Washington Post, but when it comes to proof of their bots that can evade new Instagram's filter, they were tight-lipped. They feared Instagram would somehow get their hands on the screenshots I was asking for, didn't want to show me one of their new bots, and were only comfortable sharing a control panel for their old botting system.

Regulating botting on platforms has always been difficult, because many people on social platforms are just "very bot-like" to begin with

I reached out to Darius Kazemi, an artist who makes bots, to verify what Rantic did share with me. For the most part, it seemed legit. For starters, it's actually "very simple" to make a bot farm, explained Kazem, in part because Instagram gives out its API—essentially code, tools, and rules that make these platforms function—to developers.

Massive botnets, like the one Rantic claims to have, are common and can generate millions of fake followers, he said.

Removing bots and spam is a "major priority" for Instagram, communications representative Gabe Madway said in an email. Instagram has "dedicated teams across the company that focus on protecting people's accounts and preventing abuse" on the platform, he said, who constantly "learn from scammers' techniques." Tools in their arsenal include "automated systems" that "use machine learning and other sophisticated techniques to help prevent and remove this content," wrote Madway. So basically, bots looking for other bots. "We also rely on people to report spam when they see it," he added. That is, if people can even tell who is a bot to begin with.

Regulating botting on platforms has always been difficult, noted Kazemi, because many people on social platforms are just "very bot-like" to begin with (in other words, they are predictable and often just share pictures of food, pets and sunsets). Others join the service just to follow friends and celebrities, but never post any content themselves. The "last thing you want is a false positive, you don't want to shut them down," said Kazemi. People were already angry over losing some of their followers when fake accounts were deleted back in December. They'd be even more mad if the accounts deleted were real.

Kazemi was once employed at a gaming company just to identify who was bot and who was a human. He has a very zen-like attitude about botting in general. (He makes bots as art and social experiments, after all.) "Any time you have a mathematical framework, people are going to try to abuse it," he said, not necessarily in a malicious way, just to see what the limits are.

"Only by changing the fundamental rules of platform, like hiding how many followers a person has" would combatting botting on Instagram be possible, said Kazemi. "Bots warp and dilute the value of Instagram, and if the cost is high enough, you'd have to change the entire nature of the platform." Would people want to be on a social media platform where people didn't know how popular you were, though?

Hiding the amount of followers people have would put companies like Rantic out of business, for sure. But maybe social media platforms too.