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Instagram Mastermind Creates Fake Influencer Account That Racks Up Free Meals

This is an impressive, algorithm-filled grift

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A Manhattan data scientist is turning the social media influencer world on its head by revealing that he created a bot that not only runs a successful Manhattan-themed Instagram account on its own, but also automatically solicits meals from restaurants in exchange for posts.

The bot-run account in question, @beautiful.newyorkcity, has shared over 600 photos of New York cityscapes — all reposted from other accounts, with attribution — as well as six “sponsored” posts promoting restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The bot’s creator, Chris Buetti, says he was inspired by @fuckjerry, the controversial, meme-stealing Instagram account run by Fyre Festival co-conspirator Elliot Tebele. “He never needs to show his face, he just posts memes he finds on the internet; mostly he just steals them,” Buetti tells Buzzfeed News. In a brazen move, the social media genius also documented every step of his Instagram-bot building and rise to influencer status in a Medium post. “It’s essentially a robot that operates like a human, but the average viewer can’t tell the difference,” Buetti writes in the intro to his social media-hacking manifesto.

To get the ball rolling, Buetti drew up a list of 50 instagram accounts that posted “quality pictures of NYC.” He then created an algorithm to weed out bad photos (mostly from promotional posts), and select the good ones based on a variety of factors — including ratio of likes to followers. The data scientist then wrote a script that randomly applied generic comments like “Who can name this spot?” and “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in New York,” as well as photo credits and NYC-specific hashtags to these pictures. Once he figured out how to simulate a seemingly authentic repost, Buetti wrote a script that shared these photos on Instagram during peak user times, as well as another program that helped his dummy account generate followers. “Throughout the day, my account methodically follows, unfollows, and likes relevant users and photos in order to have the same be done back to me,” he notes.

Once the page was up and running, Buetti was getting “anywhere between 100 and 500 followers a day.” And when he reached 20,000 followers, the bot-builder launched a script that searched for New York City restaurant accounts on Instagram and direct messaged them offers to promote their business on @beautifull.newyorkcity in exchange for “a free experience, small gift card, discount, or coupon.” The only manual work that Buetti had to do was actually respond to requests for sponsored posts, and he even created a script to alert him to these messages in his inbox, to streamline that part of the operation.

Several restaurant operators apparently replied with offers for free meals in exchange for posts. One anonymous restaurateur who struck up a deal with Buetti tells Buzzfeed, “I guess in the end we were satisfied because it’s still an ad posted and showing us to their followers.” Currently, the page includes “sponsored” posts promoting well-respected Brooklyn barbecue restaurant Mabel’s, as well as Chelsea Market falafel favorite Miznon.

Buetti has passed the account along to a friend who now runs it. “I’d rather do something where I can see the dollars in my bank account going up,” Buetti tells Buzzfeed. But the data scientist is continuing his work in this field through managing his own social media consulting company, Social Rise Consulting, which uses similar tactics to grow clients’ accounts. The company’s “frequently asked questions” page notes: “Through time tested and proven processes, our team uses programs and algorithms to boost engagement on an account by account basis.”

Buetti launched his bot during a time when Instagram influencers are becoming more powerful than ever. By successfully executing this stunt, he inadvertently showed just how eager marketers and restaurateurs are to work with influencers, as well as how gullible some Instagram users are in terms of who they choose to follow. And in light of this reveal, restaurateurs are now forced to worry about whether the influencers reaching out to them with freebie requests are real-flesh-and-blood humans, or simply bots doing the bidding of a social media mastermind.

Being An Instagram Influencer Is Hard Work, So This Guy Made A Bot To Do It For Him [Buzzfeed News]
How I Eat For Free in NYC Using Python, Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Instagram [Medium]
@beautiful.newyorkcity [Instagram]