Analyzing the ‘Instagram Rapture:’ What Happened to Real People?

What happened to the days when numbers couldn't lie? With likes and followers becoming equatable to cold currency, it might be time to reevaluate how much stock we put in simple web measurements.

In a massive purging of millions of accounts on Wednesday, Instagram presented a sobering example of the problems with accurately gauging engagement on the Internet. But the problem goes further than just fake and spam accounts on Instagram. Wired reported that “bots”—little scripts of automated code—now account for more traffic on the Internet than real-life users.

“Today, bots account for 56 percent of all website visits,” Marc Gaffan, CEO of Incapsula, told Wired.

Bots come in many forms and are utilized for many objectives. Whether they're used to spam a website’s comments section or to snag online restaurant reservations at break-neck speed, bots and real people are valued equally in metrics reports.

The same correspondence applies for fake and spam accounts on any social platform. Facebook and Twitter, though, have told investors that these accounts represent fewer than 5 percent of their user base, according to The New York Times.

The hardest hit by the Instagram Rapture have been the celebrities and brands with the largest followings on the network. Justin Bieber saw over three million fans evaporate, almost 15 percent of his followers, while National Geographic and Nike both saw losses of over 200,000.

Numbers can be sexy and good for showing off—as long as they tell the story you want to tell. But any communicator worth their salt knows that the loss of these accounts should mean very little. After all, public relations is about connecting with real people and delivering a message that will ring out amid the noise, not fall deaf under cold clamors of code. Whether it’s bots, fakes or spammers lurking behind the numbers, it’s important for communicators to remember that sheer magnitude doesn’t equate to engagement.