Cheatagram – the story about cheaters on Instagram

Written by Translated by Dana Rose on Friday, September 23, 2016

Instagram has announced they have a half a billion users to date. For all you visual learners, there are so many people registered on IG that you could fill the Olympia Stadion Berlin over 6,713 times. What an impressive number. A big five with eight zeros behind it. This is the professional result of growth hacking compared to other start-ups.

To buy Instagram Facebook payed a billion dollars for a half billion users. This means every user has a value of 2 dollars. But what does that mean for us, the users of Instagram?

We are with mobilephotography.de close to the community for a long time. We manage for three years the Berlin account @igersberlinofficial and have organized with 200 participants the biggest Instameet in Europe two years ago and many Instameets afterwards. Therefore we listen to what moves the community and discuss for many years the strategies for a quick growth of an account, follower growth on Instagram and the creation of likes.

We have learned that Hashtags in the special mix, posting to certain times, certain styles of photos, their look, continuous liking and commenting can lead to a slow, organic growth of accounts. We know, that a certain number of likes in a certain amount of times after the posting of a photo, could push the photo to the explore page. We observed that the right public-relation behavior in the community (taking part on meets, liking, commenting very often and very friendly) and towards Instagram (i.e. taking part in the weekend hashtag project) can lead to be on Instagrams list of suggested users, on which within two weeks one could generate tens of thousands of users. Especially newly registered users saw the suggested users. There exists a behavioral codex that can be read now in „Instagram Growth Hacking Guides“.

To be a recommended user was a thank you of Instagram that the users supported with his own promotion the work of Instagram. By the principle you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Nowadays „looking for love in the great forest of like” is written on a wall in Instagram’s headquarter.

The courting about the favor of the followers and their likes on Instagram is part of the community since the app is available in the iTunes store for download. Back then it was pretty dynamic, quickly short-cuts existed to buy followers or generate likes. To find „love“ (Insta-love) more quickly. As long as the Instagram eco-system worked by a relative stable rule-set, these short-cuts were a breach of etiquette. Everyone was struggling for the same goal with the same chances and rules. But since January of this year, that game changed dramatically, the existing rules doesn’t seem to apply anymore for everyone. What happened?

Instagram adjusted its algorithm a lot. The global discovery page, that was the same for everyone, has been personalized, so a user would get less followers, when he was „popular“. Furthermore Instagram opened his platform for advertisement clients and sales.

Instagram radically changed the newsfeed and it is not chronological anymore, but like on Twitter and Facebook, managed by the algorithm. Only very popular photos are shown. How the popularity is created, stays a company secret like the recipe of Coca-Cola. Who wants to be a top player can now buy that place. Another change was the suggested user list: the list changes less often and way less followers come to the account, if one is on the list.

As a result, the average rate of interaction (number of likes) went down by 27% compared to the first quarter in 2015. Between April 2015 and February 2016 the follower growth dropped by 93%. Facts, that didn’t pass by unnoticed in the community and created a lot of discussions (see screenshot).

Screenshot: The heavy drop in engagement on Instagram






Fame and money

But why that heavy game change? It is about two things: Fame and money. Actually it is only about money. Accounts that were growing with the regular game of Instagram more or less organically and reached up to one million followers, became well-known even outside of Instagram. Many newspaper articles, blog interview, YouTube videos etc. Were published about them and created attention by people that didn’t occupy themselves with Instagram. Step by step they became known and accepted by their popularity as professional and even artistic, regardless of being so, photographers.

In this way even brands or their agencies found out about these accounts, because in the beginning it was not possible, to advertise directly on Instagram. The big accounts, the so called influencer, have been asked to post a photo for money. By time with higher and higher prices. Some users quit their jobs and started to live off being big influencers. Other users discovered these possibilities to gain money and tried with an even higher engagement to push their accounts to become an influencer even more quickly. In the beginning 50.000 to 100.000 followers were necessary to be an influencer.

But meanwhile the growth rates became a real problem. For the users with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers it is a financial loss if the growth stops or the followers decrease. Like for instance Liz Eswein with her famous account @NewYorkCity. She takes 1$ per like for a sponsored post. 27% less likes would mean to her 27% less revenue. This correlates at 22.000 likes quickly to 5.940$ less, that she wouldn’t have.

And now?

For more than half a year, users complain about a lack of activity on their feeds. For example, less likes, less comments.

But still there are accounts, influencers and upcoming influencers that continue to grow in quick rates; their likes are more and more and more. That made us very perplexed. How can this be possible if the trend is declining? Do they work with unfair means? Is there maybe a secret way of doping like at the Tour de France, to stay in the picture?

The analysis

We have been looking with the tool Socialblade on the historic data’s of some Instagram accounts to match some users. Our hypothesis is the following: two Instagram accounts around the same size that exist for the same amount of time, are known outside of Instagram around the same amount, their account owners post in the similar frequency, with similar hashtags and engage in the community the same. Would they have different data?

For simplicity reasons we call account A „Kevin“ and account B „Mike“. While Kevin according to the actual trends loses followers, Mike loses a bit too but, gains often 20 to 200 followers daily in the same time period. In total his even account grows. How is that possible, when the two accounts behave in the same way? From what we know, Mike was not tagged more or featured in that time period.

On another wall in the Instagram headquarter it says: “Leadership is best measured by what people do when you’re not around.”


Account of Kevin




Account of Kevin


Account of Mike


Account of Mike





Account of Mark


Account of Priscilla



Over time of both accounts we can see that Kevin and Mike both unfollow many people sometimes. Mike more than Kevin. But not the days that we just saw. Is Instagrams algorithm a reason for the follower growth of Mike?

We think that is highly unlikely because the accounts behave similarly. Not too many factors exist on Instagram that can influence the algorithm. Maybe Mike would have more likes but not so many more followers. Because that would mean 800 real user that don’t know his specific photo style even if Mike is actively connected for years.

It is looking very different on the accounts of Mark and Priscilla. Mark had a very big growth in followers. Even when he is not posting any photos, Mark gained over 670 follower on 7/11. The day before he had only around 100 followers. The daily difference is a big one. Sometimes his follower numbers decline, even if he posted a photo. Priscilla gained over 5,000 follower on 7/12. Days before she followed a lot of people and then unfollowed them almost immediatly after.

Mike, Mark, and Priscilla seem to cheat. But how?


The simplest method to gain followers is follow and then unfollow. With that classical way of „Instagram growth hacking“, one follows many accounts and then unfollows all the accounts that didn’t follow back. And sometimes one will unfollow all the other accounts, too. But how can 5.000 new followers are be explained like this? The real interest in the instagram community and its photography doesn’t exist here anymore.

Buying followers

Priscilla probably bought followers. Opportunities to do so can be found easily on the web or the app stores. The followers that are sold, were mainly created by automated mass account creation. Accounts like Priscillas are not about fair competition on good content anymore, they are solely for shady business. Buying 40.000 followers would cost around 240 Euros. If someone posts a sponsored photo for a brand, they can get 500 Euros, because the account has so many followers, and 260 Euros are left as a margin. Not a bad business for Priscilla.


Like backs and first comments, Like4Like and groups

Another method appeared some time ago in an article. The article explained how Teenagers generate likes and followers. Just comment „lb“ short for „like back“, below the photo of a famous teenage star like Kylie Jenner and like the photos of other users that left the same comment. And then you get easily more likes on the own photos. Meanwhile Instagram offers the possibility to filter comments to stop that type of spam:

With apps like „Like4Like“ this method is simplified even more. If you follow other users or like their photos, you gain „credits“ for likes and followers, that can be applied to their own account. We heard that the Community is whispering behind their hands about such possibilities. In the first three hours a photo gains 200-300 likes and then there is a break and later, that same day, the photo has suddenly 1.200 or more likes. The users then use their credits. Extremly lazy people try to automate even the app Like4Like, so a machine does the “manual” work for them.

On top of that exists a lot of communities to create growth for each other. Someone posts a photo and 30 users out of the same circle like the photo immediately. The photo may come like this into the pool of interesting photos and will be shown to more users and won’t be filtered by the algorithm. Facebook groups like the „Instagram Posse“ with over 13.000 member write about themselves:

“We are looking for Instagrammers who want to be part of an active community supporting each other’s growth. Our commitment to you is to keep the group SPAM free. You will see others posting their INSTAGRAM SUCCESSES i.e. reaching 1K, 5k, 10k, 20K, 30k, 40k, 50k and more. These are people who are active in the community and celebrating their successes which we DO support.”

Instagram tools

Very new on the market are tools like River that will like for you. You choose different hashtag combinations, that a photo must have, to be liked. The clever idea is, that it is more hidden, and no teenage photos will be liked anymore, but more superior photos. The own followers can see in the news feed, what someone has liked. The tool will then like for you and all you need to do is to post. The account seems active and grows automatically without any work.


We are shocked about all these doings. Shocked by the many unfair possibilities to create an advantage towards honest Instagramers and shocked by the main numbers of users that use these methods secretively. It is not always easy to figure out which method someone might use, because all of them try to recreate a natural users behaviour. And these methods are also combined. For instance, our @igersberlinofficial account grew quite big over time and continues to do so because many users tag their photos with that account to be featured. But the growth is slow and steady, there are no suspicous jumps, only small binary quotas.

The signs of fraud are different. The economical damage is probably very big. We are remembering that on the biggest Instameets in Europe #EverchangingBerlin around 200 participants took part. Lets suppose that half of them is cheating for a year and gains around 1.000 Euro per month with Instagram. Then the damage quickly reaches millions. We don’t claim that the half of the users are cheating but among the big accounts in Europe, that are far more than 200, there are for sure 100 users that are cheating or use means of doping to push their accounts. The dark figure is probably way higher, if we just think on the members of the „Instagram Posse“ on Facebook with over 13.000 members.

It is about jobs and money. Jobs, that the honest users because of their very low reach, can’t even apply for. The agencies are mainly dazzled by the potential reach and are cheated at. The problem is not specific to Instagram but widely spread throughout the Web and on Social Media (Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, etc.). It doesn’t come as a surprise that the conversion rates in the internet are low single-figures percentages at best. There is just to much spam.

We thinking about it and from our point of view it could be an opportunity for honest users to arrange under a codex of transparency like the Blogger codex, to be transparent for viewers, partners and businesses. We would gladly make the effort together with the community to create such a codex and to foster an honest discussion about that topic. Like we, at mobilephotography.de, are trying to work only with honest users. We gladly help brands and agencies to seperate honest and dishonest users. But at first they have to be made sensible for that. Maybe then we are talking again about content, quality and transparency then only likes and followers.

We don’t want to attack or ridule someone, and surely we will not mention names, even if we know them. Everyone has to deal with it himself. But we would like to have a discussion about this topic and we are always looking forward to your feedback.

Moritz Möller

The Berliner had the idea to bring mobilephotography.de to life. He is overseeing all our marketing activities and developed our Wordpress blog. On our social media channels he writes the users, whom he rushs through the city to take photos on our events. He is at the same time ManIger of @Igersberlinofficial and EyeEm Ambassador Berlin. He see's hashtags all the time when he walks on the streets and as a studied art-historian he has a great passion for the content, that he is overseeing here.





  • by Michelle R on 2016-09-25 14:48:13
    An interesting article. My numbers don't move and whilst I believe in my content, I put it down to the lack of sociability. I find it nearly impossible to do a massive amount of interaction. Often times, I look at some of my daughter's friends' accounts. It doesn't make sense to me that someone with 500 followers can generate 280+ likes. The content is unremarkable. I have never gotten more than 120. I would be lucky to hit 100 on a good day. I would consider myself an honest user. For all the short listing and exhibitions, I still have less than 2000 followers and average 100 likes. On my street account, I've built that from scratch. I have noticed that I gain more likes with BW images. I've only managed to get my account past the number of people I follow: 450+. On EyeEm the state of affairs is even more dismal there for me. The ins and outs of IG are overwhelming these days. Once upon a time it was about photos: good and bad. Now a business doesn't have a good marketing strategy if it doesnt have an IG account.
  • by Hans K. on 2016-09-25 14:28:22
    Just read the article Moritz, thanks a million for shedding more light into this dark side. I'm sure that the purchasing of followers is still highly active by many and that Instagram knows fully well it happens. Sadly, there is no interest to stop it since it all feeds back into the overall growth loop of Instagram itself. And there is even less interest on the part of people making money from sponsored posts. I was on the SU list for several months in 2012-13 and my account is clean, but totally full of ghosts. Even so, medium and smaller brands mostly care about follower numbers, especially those brands with little idea as to the real engagement. I suppose that eventually the brands will realize that there is a shady game going on and will either stay out of this or buy their own followers. It's a game of money for their own marketing guys too. In the meantime, my own posting and sharing habits are certainly different. Less motivated to post and less inclined to use the app itself. Sad but true.
  • by Philgonzalez on 2016-09-24 17:34:49
    Two or three years ago, I wrote an article called "the dark side of Instagram" Aiming to tell all the true behind Instagram, Fake Likes and Ghost Followers... I never published it thinking it was better not to promote these black practices. I was thinking of tracking few accounts, trying to understand how big accounts like mine (I was "fairly or unfairly? for being @igers founder?" suggested user for many months very long time ago) were blocked and declining while other were still rising.. And I finally threw the sponge away.. Thanks to have say clearly what you think and what a lot of people think. Will it produce any result? I don't know.. It's sad but Instagram knew for many years that its Open Api was a way to create bots and fake accounts and they leave it open... And it's just a part of the iceberg..
  • by Jake on 2016-09-24 11:20:49
    The analysis in the article is pretty good and I mostly agree with what is said here. At the same time I don't think that Socialblade is 100% reliable... Nobody really knows how it works and how they manage to generate all this data without Instagram authorization. Also huge drops and gains of followers doesn't prove anything because no one knows how Instagram algorithm works and for sure it's not exactly the same for each user. Better be careful with accusations of cheating because it's basically impossible to prove it. As for cheating, it's sad enough to say that but I think that Suggested User's list is cheating itself - Instagram putting their friends' recommendations on the list and making them earn lots of money. Community First is a joke...
  • by Frank on 2016-09-24 01:44:56
    I encountered another curiosity recently, maybe someone can shed some light on it. VSCO shared an older photo of mine recently that I took on a mountain in Rio. Since then an amount of what feels like at least 50 accounts on Instagram have reposted the photo (only counting the ones that tagged me in some form). I didn't observe every single one of them, but many of them felt quite generic sharing mostly "stunning" travel photos from other people. But one account kind of stood out to me. Why? Bc the picture received a lot of comments congratulating me in some way. I was tempted to write a sarcastic "Did I win something?" But it was obvious it was about the "honor" of being shared there (it was not that big of an account). What struck me was that all these accounts that congratulated me appeared to be quite similar and quite generic, mostly managed by multiple other accounts. I felt like I was dropped in some weird robotic spiral of empty applause. Probably the accounts were automated or it was some weird growth hack group like mentioned in the article. Either way I felt my photo was misused for something shady... In the end I had a growth of a couple of hundred new followers because of the many tagged reposts, but I feel conflicted about it bc who knows how many of those are fake accounts or will basically unfollow me once they realize I mostly post stuff from Berlin and not stunning travel photos. It feels odd. I knew that probably quite a few people had somehow cheated the system, but I never knew in such detail what are really the ways for them to do it, so this article was quite educative. Ultimately what it does though is discourage me from being ambitious on Instagram, because the moment you make it only about the likes and followers you take out the fun of it.

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