Social media junkie though I am, my Instagram account is relatively small with only 124 followers. I throw in the typical tossed salad of hashtags to try and get my pictures noticed by people because lord knows, after all the cropping and filter work that goes into each shot, I want a respectable number of likes, preferably by some cool people. So it was quite exciting when I opened up Instagram and discovered that an account for popular Israeli band ‘Infected Mushroom’ had not only ‘liked’ my pic, but commented “love your photo’s”! The grammar mistake was theirs, but hey, they’re Israeli.

Actually, I was completely thrilled. They had nearly 10,000 followers and 2,000 accounts that they follow, and they bothered to tell ME they love MY photos? If that’s not ego tonic, what is?

Not one to simply rest on my laurels, I went and looked up the band so I could listen to some of their songs and repay the compliment. Unfortunately I could not find any that I liked, so I settled for a simple ‘Thanks @weinfectedmushroom’ and moved on. But I didn’t just move on. I went back to it, internally basking in it, and daydreaming about the day Duran Duran will comment on my Instagram posts. A few times I even clicked back on the @weinfectedmushroom account link, wondering how they got to me. There were all these cool rock band photos of a cool rock band that I couldn’t stand… And then, one time, I clicked the link, and the account had disappeared.

Of course that couldn’t be. Accounts with 10,000 followers don’t just get chucked in a moment of impulsive godliness or something (“Instagram, shminstagram. What do I need this for? DELETE…” Not.) I checked again and again, but it was really gone.

I went back to my picture and, what do you know? The comment was gone! But wait… I looked again, and, strangely, the comment was THERE. But it was in the name of a different account, ‘@tzeirim’. Baffled at the connection, I clicked through to this other account and found what seemed like a brand-new, somewhat nebulous account… with nearly 10,000 followers! Now I don’t know about you, but unless you are the Pope, even if you are a social media uber-super-guru, you do NOT acquire 10,000 followers on an Instagram account in a week… It had to be the Infected Mushroom account, but was I sure? And why?

With my inner Lois Lane more than piqued, I checked in with my trusty friend Google. A quick search came up with some interesting data. There were DOZENS of cached Instagram photos, easily found, tagged by @weinfectedmushroom with this exact line: “love your photo’s”. This is a great strategy for getting targeted people to follow ‘your’ account since they want to repay the compliment. Especially if you are a famous, known musical band giving the Instagrammer the time of day…

But what if you’re NOT a famous, known musical band? What if you’re a no-name, wannabe, looking to beef up your social media presence? Well, then this is an excellent strategy, though entirely unethical. The thing is, it wasn’t a no-name at all. @Tzeirim is – or should I say, it is being represented as – an Instagram account of political party Yesh Atid; a branch of theirs in Haifa to be exact. Seems like a rather shady way to gain supporters… One look at their Facebook page and you can see that it clearly is the same yet the older Facebook page has just over 1,100 ‘likes’ though somehow their Instagram account miraculously has 10 times that amount…

The Instagram photo that started it all

Screenshot of the Instagram photo that started it all

It was only by chance (or by my burning curiosity…) that I managed to make this discovery. Frankly, I felt violated. And I was also certain I had a great story: Political Party Uses Bait and Switch to Inflate Follower Stats. I was on the verge of publishing this post, but I contacted the Yesh Atid branch that was represented by the account, primarily as a courtesy.

When I reached the person in charge of their social media, he sounded not just surprised but bewildered. In fact, he had a hard time even understanding me as he was not particularly familiar with Instagram. I found out that, in fact, the Instagram account was outsourced to someone who was hired to build up followers.

And this, it turns out, was just the guy I was looking for.

Speaking to him, I discovered that he uses a program he created to automate ‘liking’ and commenting based on certain criteria so you can just let the program run and followers just materialize, encouraged by the seeming attention. In fact, he was quite proud of his innovation and totally oblivious to why I thought it was unethical. He didn’t admit the whole Infected Mushroom scheme, even though the whole story only came to light because of it.

To his credit, he insisted that the Yesh Atid branch knew nothing of his slick bait and switch methods and a quick call back to their representative found him exceedingly grateful for the information I provided them.

Two lessons came out of this exercise: Using false pretenses to artificially inflate a social media account is bad business. And reaching conclusions without making the extra effort to be absolutely sure of your facts is bad business as well. Both generate lies and deceptions. They can pad your social media account and let you spin a great story. But they both yield dubious results at best and can be downright damaging at worst.

Some things are just worth more than the story. Way, way more.