Education, experience, expertise – there was a time when the qualifications of prominent figures were based on their real-life experiences. But increasingly, we tout the influence of professionals – especially in certain fields – by their social-media presence.
How many Twitter followers does a journalist have? How many Instagram likes does that model get? And how many views did that song receive on YouTube?
And how much of these credentials have any meaning when they’re all for sale?
As the influence and prevalence of social media grows, the business of promotion across all these platforms is growing with it. For years, companies have sold products that boost your social-media presence – or just the appearance of it. And Israel is no exception.
There are a handful of Israeli companies that deal in the sale of social-media attention. Anyone with a credit card can buy Twitter followers, Facebook likes, Instagram comments and YouTube views within minutes. And it might cost less than you think.
At Buy.org.il, you can buy 1,000 Twitter followers for NIS 70 plus VAT. At Trueffic, it will cost you NIS 100 plus VAT for the same amount. And Alon Network will sell you 1,000 brand new Twitter followers for NIS 10 - a bargain basement price for what they call "eggs" - new users without a profile photo that make little effort to appear to not be robots.
Purchasing followers on Instagram is a lot cheaper: NIS 59, NIS 66 and NIS 3 from those three companies, respectively. On YouTube, 10,000 views for your video will cost NIS 120 plus VAT from Buy.org.il and NIS 169 plus VAT on Trueffic. Trueffic even sells “dislike” votes for YouTube videos. For NIS 49, you can buy 500 thumbs-down votes on a video posted by your competition. Other services have been known to sell positive Amazon reviews and Yelp rankings.
“Our most popular service in Israel is definitely Instagram,” Aviv Aldo, founder of Trueffic, told The Jerusalem Post. “Young girls who want to be social-media stars are our biggest customers.”
Aldo said Trueffic has been around for eight years and sells a wide range of services. But nothing is as popular as Instagram followers.
And when it comes to Instagram, the more followers you have, the higher price you can demand for pushing sponsored content on your fans. The most popular Israeli users on the photo-sharing platform are, no surprise, Gal Gadot and Bar Refaeli. But if we're being honest, they are already global superstars. After those two hot commodities come Anna Zak and Neta Alchimister, two models and social media stars. Zak, just 16, has modeled for a variety of Israeli companies, and even released two singles online to her more than one million followers. Alchimister, 23, who also boasts over a million Instagram fans, models for Castro and founded her own designer swim-wear company. Each one uses her platforms to hawk clothing, jewelry, perfume, furniture and even Samsung phones – sponsored posts which can earn them tens of thousands of shekels.
Netta Doron, who runs her own social-media marketing firm, says she would never recommend that a client purchase influence on any such platform.
“The goal is not likes, it’s business – it’s good PR and online discourse,” Doron told the Post. “If it’s not authentic then it won’t really aid the business.” She said that people who purchase followers and likes are not able to translate those things into real engagement that will benefit them financially. The purchases are often an ego boost for individuals more than promotion for business.
On the record, nobody will admit to purchasing followers or recommending that clients do so. But there’s no doubt that the industry is alive and well.
Aldo said Trueffic has several thousand customers, including politicians and famous figures. A customer representative for Buy.org.il also said its customers include well-known people: “Everyone does it today.”
TWITTER’S REALM on the Internet is separate from Instagram’s, driven more by pithy one-liners and back-and-forths than by bikini-clad models.
Twitter is not the domain of sponsored content and advertisements – at least not close to the level of Instagram. But it is where politicians and journalists like to hang out and share their work and their views – where MKs from different parties or even the same party will publicly bicker and shame each other. Seven of the 10 most-followed Israeli Twitter accounts belong to journalists.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times created a serious stir with the revelation that many prominent figures across a range of industries had purchased Twitter followers. Among a US-based company’s 200,000 customers were actors, models, journalists and other prominent personalities. In the fallout of that article, film critic Richard Roeper was suspended from the Chicago Sun-Times before being reinstated with penalties for purchasing followers; British celebrity baker and TV personality Paul Hollywood deleted his account entirely; and singer and activist Clay Aiken saw his follower count drop by more than 100,000 accounts.
After The New York Times article, Twitter itself promised, “We are working to stop them and any companies like them.”
How can you tell if an account has purchased fake followers? The answer is that you can’t really. There are signs and indicators – but no guarantees. And even when accounts have large amounts of fake followers, that doesn’t mean they paid for them. One notable feature of those who sell fake likes and followers is that you can buy them for anyone you like, without their consent or even their knowledge.
ONE TOOL, TwitterAudit.com, claims to analyze what percentage of any account’s followers are real. According to the site, the company takes a sample of an account’s followers, ranks the likelihood of their being robots, and uses that to estimate the percentage of real followers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most followed Israeli on Twitter after Gadot, has 68% real followers, according to the site. The algorithm believes that just 33% of the 411,000 followers of Channel 2’s Amit Segal are real; just 28% of the 285,000 followers of Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker are real; and just 26% of Channel 10’s Ayala Hasson’s 258,000 followers are real.
Segal, who declined to comment for this article, has often spoken about his belief that many of his followers are fake. In a 2016 blog post, he wrote that he believed only around 80,000 of his 227,000 followers were real, and that he had “no doubt that robotic battalions are flooding this social network.”
Over the years many people have accused Netanyahu – or, more realistically, one of his aides – of purchasing fake followers on social media, a charge he has always ignored or denied.
Representatives of both Channel 2 and 10 said they would never purchase fake followers or encourage their employees to do so.
“We don’t buy followers,” said Channel 10 spokeswoman Adva Galanti. She added that she wasn’t aware of any explicit prohibition against reporters doing so.
Alon Shani, the spokesman for Channel 2, said the company doesn’t spend any money on online promotion in any way – that would only be done by Keshet and Reshet, the suppliers of the company’s news broadcasts.
“All of our social engagement is organic,” Shani told the Post. “There is no prohibition or official guidance for reporters, and I haven’t gone reporter by reporter checking – nor do I intend to. But nobody has bought followers or spent their private money on such a thing.”
Ynet reporter Atilla Somfalvi, who lists 80,000 followers (43% real according to TwitterAudit), has also repeatedly wondered why so many apparent robots are following him and other Israeli journalists, “who give the impression that they have hundreds of thousands of followers – but they don’t.”
The suspected accounts are notable for never having actually tweeted, lacking a profile photo or bio, and often having user names that are nothing more than a string of letters and numbers. But those are the cheap ones. Higher quality and more expensive followers will appear to have real names and photos, and even biographies. Though they will rarely tweet themselves, they often re-tweet content from clients.
Not surprisingly, nobody – from journalists to politicians to celebrities – will admit to purchasing followers or likes online. Tens of thousands of fake robots are floating around – many of which even have Israeli or Hebrew names. So while it’s not clear how much social-media attention in Israel is real, it is clear that some people in Israel are forking over a lot for fakes.