Instagram: Real people are turning their accounts into bots – and cashing in

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.

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.

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