Still, Max’s following did not grow.
Bots can backfire.
Another tip that came up frequently was to buy fake followers. The premise: The only good time to buy followers is when you are small and just getting started, because accounts with medium-size followings look more attractive and thus could persuade people to follow you.
In other words, people find comfort in conformity.
This made sense to me, so I sent $19 via PayPal to Social10X, a site that offers services to improve your social media presence, and bought a package of 2,500 followers. The followers on Max’s account quickly grew, an experience that was as eerie as it was satisfying. I visited some of the followers’ profiles. Many of them looked like real people.
Max’s followers ultimately jumped to about 3,000 from 300. But his average number of likes fell. The bots themselves did not give my posts more likes — it turned out if you wanted artificial likes, you had to pay extra for a separate package.
Social10X did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Gilbreath of Ahalogy, which helps brands ferret out influencers with fake followers, said that generally, bots worked in two different ways: Some are phony accounts that have copied all the content from real people’s profiles, and others are actual people who are part of a so-called follower exchange program, in which they agree to follow people in exchange for being followed back.
Buying followers is against Instagram’s community guidelines. Last month, the company announced that it would remove activity generated by third parties that inflated engagement, including likes and follows. Instagram said in a statement that it blocks millions of fake accounts at registration every day.
“Fraudulent activity is bad for everyone on Instagram,” said the company, which is owned by Facebook. “We have a strong incentive to prevent people from spreading spam and low-quality content.”