In searching through my archives, I came across a story my friend Ankit published in 2015. Lucky I saved it because the page has since been removed. However, I kept a record because I will never forget the day he called me from London. He sounded upset and paranoid. He kept repeating "it's all a lie, I can't believe this, everything is a lie".
When I got him to calm down and explain what he was talking about, he described some parts of what he wrote afterwards (below) during his "reality" meltdown. I had heard about bot nets during my security team briefings at NASA and know what it means to be an "Organic" user on Twitter. I knew that what he described was possible and existed, but this was the first time someone I knew admitted to having done this, and lost $40,000 on social media in the process of acquiring 2 million followers.
I'll stop here and let you read his words and story. Think about the impact of this on daily life and society as a whole!
So I deleted my Instagram and Twitter accounts each of which had nearly a million followers. I lost almost two million followers in just a couple clicks. Yes, was ranked as the 1,511th most followed person on Twitter, not bad out of 284 million supposedly active users. And on Instagram I was the most followed person from India. But I didn’t feel good about it. And it’s not because I hate social media, nor do I find it intrusive, matter of fact I believe it’s one of the most powerful tools we have for the benefit of humanity. So was I mad to do so? And am I mad in revealing what I am about to to you? I don’t think so.
I have blanked out the full identity of “R” the fake followers dealer, as there are so many out there it feels unfair to reveal only one on here. R offers me a “very very good price” on fake followers by the million. How could a boy refuse?
It was eating me up inside, I felt like such a phoney and I couldn’t go on like that anymore. I started getting all these offers, brands wanting to pay me to post about their products to even a University inviting me to lecture. I was getting away with it, and I could have started making money from it. I even ended up getting genuine and influential followers like Nick Cannon and Shawn Sachs the publicist of DiCaprio. Perhaps they would have followed me regardless, but I just felt so low, and soulless, how could I accept any of these offers knowing what I was doing? What I was doing was building up an arsenal of the weapons of cultural mass destruction.
But sadly everyone is doing it, the leaders of nations, even the politicians I used to admire like the President of the United States, Barack, how can he have millions of fake followers? Even the Dalai Lama has millions of fake followers. It’s just not right. After knowing how this works, I feel like I cant trust anyone. Followers are not commodities, Followers were meant to be sacred.
The whole thing has gotten sickening, and I think it’s dangerous for our cultural health. It’s seriously skewing fair competition and our ability to judge quality. It negatively impacting our cultural potential and collective psychology. In a democracy we’re indoctrinated to respect the popular, so we need to be aware when popularity is being rigged or inflated. Just as you wouldn’t accept a rigged election or an inflated vote count, why should you accept the attempt to sway public opinion by rigged and grossly over inflated social media profiles? When now elections or even revolutions can be influenced and won by the power of the virtual realm, the people need to be aware.
Yes, I lost a few thousand dollars in seconds by deleting my profiles, and some credibility too. But I feel like I have done the right thing. I don’t make my art just for the sake of money or popularity. Andy Warhol had it so wrong. Good business is not the best art, but simply, the greatest art will be the best art. Sadly, a generation of people are religiously trapped in this fickle Warholian bubble of pop art, wrongly believing whatever is the most popular or expensive is the best. Making money is important, but cultural and political leaders need to transcend that as well. And you know that culturally things are bad, when Warholian fundamentalists are revered. Like the art exploiting industrialist Damien Hirst who states money is “as big as love, maybe even bigger.” This bubble will burst. You have my word, even if I have to pop it myself.
So I got into the dark arts, first by using fake views for promoting youtube videos. Eventually I got so good at it I rigged one video by 5 million high retention views, it was even trending in some countries on Youtube, getting as a result about half a million real views. With the right budget I could have probably even recreated Gangnam, they didn’t even use high retention views in the beginning of that “campaign”. When everybody is doing it, you feel you cant compete. It feels like a cold war. Your videos are being judged before they are even seen. But Youtube was too difficult to compete in, even with the faking, the market was so saturated and overinflated, and Youtube realising this also started updating and cracking down hard on fake views. I needed fresher pastures.
Later I would move onto fake followers on Twitter and then Instagram. Though in the very beginning I did use Facebook ads to try and build up a following completely legitimately. Actually, I had almost 200,000 real followers on my Facebook page with these efforts. But as irony would have it, I had to disable my Facebook page too, because of a random 5,000 spam followers which appeared over night. I don’t know who sent them, it certainly was not me, I was dealing in much larger numbers. Facebook noticed and kindly deleted these spam followers, but this resulted in corresponding technical faults which never seemed to get resolved. It rendered my ability to communicate with all those real followers virtually useless.
My Facebook page with nearly 200,000 real followers got the hard, time consuming and expensive way. Ironically it has been effected by technical errors that never seem to get fixed.
While it took me two years to get 200,000 real followers, it only took me two days to acquire 2 million fake ones. The process to acquire real followers and views, to do it the right way, was very expensive and time consuming in comparison, in some cases by a factor of a 100 or even more. I felt I couldn’t afford to keep up with the competition that was blatantly cheating and being rewarded for it. So I adopted the if you cant beat them join them approach. I should have known better then to fall for a cliché.
With a bit of research, experimenting, reading black hat forums and studying the strategies of the competition, I was able to orchestrate a social media fixing operation on a mass scale, and not just limited to fake followers. But also to comments, likes and even mass commenting and liking. I employed social media fixers, like exchanges and bots across the world including in the UK, USA, Russia, the Far East, Sri Lanka and Eastern Europe. One fake followers dealer I used from Pakistan even boasted about working on Charlie Sheen’s and NBC Today show’s Twitter accounts. It’s worrying when you meditate on this. That some how democracy here and our perceptions of our leaders and media outlets can be manipulated by people in countries that have deplorable track records of upholding democratic values.
I was doing my research and thought Shawn Sachs could be an interesting guy to follow and comment on. He started following me back.
On Instagram I really excelled though, I was running the show. You see it’s not just the followers that are fake it’s, the likes and comments too, the whole thing is a circus, and for a bit I was the ring master. I had several apps on my phone that would allow me to trigger bots or access like exchanges to make the whole operation happen in real time where ever I was. Monaco, Milan, Como, Paris, London or Cannes, I was getting thousands of likes per post, and as many comments as I desired. I would then use a macros to auto-like and mass comment on thousands of profiles I would never actually see, waiting for the real ones to bite. While personally I’d research and target select influential accounts. And bite they did. I got real comments and real interest, I had become the most followed Indian man on Instagram, number one out of a billion, and all of it manufactured. Even today, Abhishek Bachchan has less then 500K followers. I would exchange flirts with models and I was followed and acknowledged by Shawn Sachs the publicist for DiCaprio, Affleck and Naomi Campbell. He even once asked me to share his photography, he’s actually a really good photographer. As did my real life friend the fashion designer Nicole Coste, she had opened her first store in London and sweetly asked if could help her brand get some exposure. I felt bad because nobody was actually looking, I wish I could have really helped them.
My comment are no longer visible as I deleted the account but you can notice not everybody gets a reply.
Shawn asked me to share a horse head photo. I started feeling guilty, my million followers were fake and my thousands of likes were low quality, it would never receive the attention he believed. I ignored the request as not to be any more deceitful.
Then, in started coming the real offers that I hadn’t planned for. Money to post for brands, big and small from Prada to ThinTea. When I researched into this I realised I probably could have been getting around $5,000 a post, that would have made the whole operation profitable in just one post. I thought to myself, should I take the money, post to empty followers and then reinvest to grow it even bigger. Once I knew the formula and started raising revenue, I could have easily pushed this to 10 million followers, 100 thousand likes per post, and thousands of comments. I knew exactly how to do that, without getting caught. After a few close calls with temporary bans on activity, I had worked out how to feel the limits. Sure Instagram would keep updating to catch out the bots but I kept adapting too, finding new strategies to stay one step ahead. Who knows what other influential people I could connect to if I grew my “following”, I mused. I would have probably started getting TV interviews, record deals, film contracts and endorsements. You may have heard about me as the next “viral” fairly tale, smiling and lying on the Ellen Degeneres show, besides I was already in touch with the most powerful publicist in the world. And after all the Ellen Show too has millions of fake followers. I was one of themnow, and this was all part of the game right? Soon I would be able to influence the hearts and minds of the people. To a degree I was already doing this. I could see where all this was going, but I was torn. I had started four years ago as the sweet naive boy wanting to share his lo-fi music video “People are my Favourite Thing” with the world to make it a better place. But here I was now turning into a well-oiled sinister and wolfish bot King.
In the end, I couldn’t take the money for something that I knew wasn’t real. That is fraud. My mother had taught me better, she is a lawyer. I decided I didn’t want to be part of that deceptive world. Every time when I would look at my profile my heart would sink. And this would happen quite often. Because let’s face it social media reflects on you day to day or for some even hour to hour. I was even embarrassed to meet new people and see them get impressed by my “following”. The deception, it’s implications and pressures were always on my mind. I started wondering if my new contacts in my virtual and real life were drawn to me just for my hollow following. Whenever someone looked at me in admiration or said “Ankit could make you famous just by tweeting”, I felt so empty. I then started to try and explain in private how this was all a marketing trick, yet as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the guilt kept pulsing on my conscience.
So I felt so good when I deleted my accounts. I felt emancipated. As if a weight had lifted off my body, mind and soul. Writing this makes me feel more cleansed and righteous too. Sometimes it’s hard to quit the deeper you go down that path and the bigger the lie gets. Especially when money gets put on the table. I am glad I did though. I can be me again. I feel more creative and now I can focus on making my art quality, instead of constantly worrying about getting banned or living up to artificial expectations. I have already restarted my new Instagram, and have just a few followers now, but they are human and that’s what I want.
It was funny because a little after I deleted my Instagram account, by sheer coincidence the great Instagram purge came in December. It wiped of millions of followers from most of the celebrity profiles including Akon, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. Hordes of fake followers were annihilated. Just the top 20 most affected profiles alone lost over 30 million fake followers. I didn’t know they were going to purge accounts like that, but it did make me smile when it happened. The real extent of the situation is far worse though, I probably would have only lost 20% of my fake followers in that purge. Because all fake followers are not created equal. Some are made to be more sophisticated. The bots that incubate these culture devouring zombies, can make them appear more real too. They do this by giving the fake followers profile photos and even a few tweets of their own. Sometimes these zombies get classified as “inactive” instead of fake, creating an even deeper layer of deception, confusion and even depression.
We need to be vigilant about this now and find mechanisms to put a stop to this fraud. Because as artificial intelligence technology matures, it perhaps won’t be the physical robots wanting self determination we need to worry about, but instead those invisible advanced bots enslaved by ourselves. Designed to manipulate our minds and hearts. To some degree this is already happening. I used bots that could mass like and comment based on precomposed text and hashtags. But what happens next, when millions of fake followers may be able to debate, create false consensus and suppress ideas? What if they could be programmed to clandestinely indoctrinate us with certain agendas or ideologies?
“For I want my art to stand for the truth. And if this is too lofty and unrealistic then atleast for the most beautiful search towards the truth.”
You know, if I can come out about this as an independent artist, they all can afford to come out too and start again. It would be the right thing to do. The thing is if we are deceptive on these social networks, where and when does the deception end? Could this influence banking, stock markets, politics or our personal lives? (Perhaps this is the sort of deception on large and small scales that builds up and contributes to boom and bust cycles.) And if the social networks cannot control these fakes, why don’t they just stop displaying the numbers all together, or at the least display them less prominently in an effort to curb this depraved behaviour? Unless ofcourse they know and it serves their interests to have inflated number of followers for their networks too, to turn a blind eye to celebrities, and for shareholder “confidence”.
And while there is an aspect of deniability or random spam followers, from my own experiences I know that this can be and is being done systematically to the tune of millions. It’s hard to be sure what’s real and what’s not. And this is not acceptable in societies based on the freedom of media. Numbers and data also have a scared quality. We even use them to try and make sense of our Universe. On a day to day basis we use numbers and statistics to form opinions, debate and make decisions. They effect our conscious and subconscious. To fudge them with such gross disregard, especially in terms of our social fabric could lead to dire consequences. The real scary thought however is that, Barack, Ellen, Charlie and the Dalai Lama and many of the others may not even know that their followers, daily likes and comments are fake, they too may buy into the lie of marketing and pr campaigns. Then if it’s not me, then who is it that’s really behind all of this? Are there already a few sinister bot Kings who could control our minds and media? And do they inflate the system across the board (on a daily basis) to inflate both perceptions and advertising rates? Something is happening, and in a democracy, we have the right to know.
So I feel that political, media, religious and cultural leaders have a responsibility to state clearly and ensure that they and their representatives are not involved in such deceptions. It’s crucial now as the virtual world directs the real world in so many ways. It affects our decisions from what we buy to where we go to what we eat, even how we select mates. And crucially it impacts the media and information which we are exposed to.
I really believe in the potential of social media to improve the human condition. That is why I feel so strongly against the use of fake followers, as the Internet has this egalitarian like essence which I feel is being perverted. Especially when you think that they’re targeting and tricking young people who are sensitive and developing their tastes and ethics. I wonder, how our behaviour at this present time will be judged in history. Will they look upon these acts in the future as a mad barbaric thirst to achieve popularity for the sake of power and money at all costs?
This dark digital propaganda is a weapon of cultural mass destruction and it’s virtual stock pile must be swiftly put to an end. I call on all leaders to disarm from their nuclear phoniness. I hope this can be done before it plays anymore havoc on our perceptions of the real world.
For I want my art to stand for the truth. And if this is too lofty and unrealistic then atleast for the most beautiful search towards the truth.
A screenshot of my Instagram just before I deleted it. I was the most followed person from India on Instagram when I deleted it in late November.
Statistics from my deleted twitter account as recorded by Twitter Counter.
Analysis of Barack Obama’s Twitter following by Status People. From my experience inactive can also be fake, just a harder to detect fake. Think about it proportionally too, how many inactive twitter followers are there total and why such a large proportion of inactive followers tend to gravitate to these inflated accounts? Something is not right.
Analysis of Ellen Degeneres Show’s Twitter page by Status People.
R my Pakistani fake followers dealer had said he remembered sending Charlie Sheen’s account 7 to 8 million followers. 0.12+0.52=0.64. 0.64x11,358,958=7,269,733. Now, isn’t that a coincidence?
This email invite caught me by surprise. Even a University was pitching to me. Their innocent respect made me feel I just couldn’t address “the youth” and those “future decision makers”, not like this, I had to make a change.