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Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned – TechCrunch

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Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower-growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting spammers

I began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing, where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1,000 to 2,500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the “tragedy of the commons” of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, Social Sensational, SocialFuse, We Grow Social, IG Wildfire and Gramflare. TrendBee and Gramflare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow and Servantify.

Knowingly poisoning the well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service,” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability,” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance,” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.


EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Aleksandr [last name redacted] says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says, “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said, “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me, “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people… and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam,” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram finally shuts down the spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers,” “boost your Instagram followers,” “real followers,” “grow your engagement,” “get verified,” “engagement automation” and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies that can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Kicking these services off Instagram is an important step, but the company must be more proactive. Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

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PayPal’s new ‘super app’ is ready to launch, will also include messaging – TechCrunch

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PayPal’s plan to morph itself into a “super app” have been given a go for launch. According to PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, speaking to investors during this week’s second-quarter earnings, the initial version of PayPal’s new consumer digital wallet app is now “code complete” and the company is preparing to slowly ramp up. Over the next several months, PayPal expects to be fully ramped in the U.S., with new payment services, financial services, commerce and shopping tools arriving every quarter.

The company has spoken for some time about its “super app” ambitions — a shift in product direction that would make PayPal a U.S.-based version of something like China’s WeChat or Alipay or India’s Paytm. Similar to these apps, PayPal aims to offer a host of consumer services under one roof, beyond just mobile payments.

In previous quarters, PayPal said these new features may include things like enhanced direct deposit, check cashing, budgeting tools, bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, and buy now/pay later functionality. It also said it would integrate commerce, thanks to the mobile shopping tools acquired by way of its $4 billion Honey acquisition from 2019.

So far, PayPal has continued to run Honey as a standalone application, website and browser extension, but the super app could incorporate more of its deal-finding functions, price tracking features, and other benefits.

On Wednesday’s earnings call, Schulman revealed the super app would include a few other features as well, including high-yield savings, early access to direct deposit funds, and messaging functionality outside of peer-to-peer payments — meaning you could chat with family and friends directly through the app’s user interface.

PayPal hadn’t yet announced its plans to include a messaging component until now, but the feature makes sense in terms of how people often combine chat and peer-to-peer payments today. For example, someone may want to make a personal request for the funds instead of just sending an automated request through an app. Or, after receiving payment, a user may want to respond with a “thank you,” or other acknowledgement. Currently, these conversations take place outside of the payment app itself on platforms like iMessage. Now, that could change.

“We think that’s going to drive a lot of engagement on the platform,” said Schulman. “You don’t have to leave the platform to message back and forth.”

With the increased user engagement, the company expects to see a related bump in average revenue per active account.

Schulman also hinted at “additional crypto capabilities,” which were not detailed. However, PayPal earlier this month increased the crypto purchase limit from $20,000 to $100,000 for eligible PayPal customers in the U.S., with no annual purchase limit. The company also this year made it possible for consumers to check out at millions of online businesses using their cryptocurrencies, by first converting the crypto to cash then settling with the merchant in U.S. dollars.

Though the app’s code is now complete, Schulman said the plan is to continue to iterate on the product experience, noting that the initial version will not be “the be-all and end-all.” Instead, the app will see steady releases and new functionality on a quarterly basis.

However, he did say that early on, the new features would include the high-yield savings, improved bill pay with a better user experience and more billers and aggregators, as well as early access to direct deposit, budgeting tools, and the new two-way messaging feature.

To integrate all the new features into the super app, PayPal will undergo a major overhaul of its user interface.

“Obviously, the [user experience] is being redesigned,” Schulman noted. “We’ve got rewards and shopping. We’ve got a whole giving hub around crowdsourcing, giving to charities. And then, obviously, Buy Now, Pay Later will be fully integrated into it…The last time I counted, it was like 25 new capabilities that we’re going to put into the super app,” he said.

The digital wallet app will also be personalized to the end user, so no two apps are the same. This will be done using both A.I. and machine learning capabilities to  “enhance each customer’s experiences and opportunities,” said Schulman.

PayPal delivered an earnings beat in the second quarter with $6.24 billion in revenue, versus the $6.27 billion Wall St. expected, and earnings per share of $1.15 versus the $1.12 expected. Total payment volume from merchant customers also jumped 40% to $311 billion, while analysts had projected $295.2 billion. But the company’s stock slipped due to a lowered outlook for Q3, impacted by eBay’s transition to its own managed payments service.

In addition, PayPal gained 11.4 million net new active accounts in the quarter, to reach 403 million total active accounts.

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Spotify’s Clubhouse rival, Greenroom, tops 140K installs on iOS, 100K on Android – TechCrunch

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Spotify’s recently launched live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, has a long road ahead of it if it wants to take on top social audio platforms like Clubhouse, Airtime, Spoon and others, not to mention those from top social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. To date, the new Greenroom app has only been downloaded a total of 141,000 times on iOS, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This includes downloads from its earlier iteration, Locker Room — an app Spotify acquired to make its move into live audio.

On Android, Google Play data indicates the app has been installed over 100,000 times, but Sensor Tower cannot yet confirm this figure.

For comparison, Clubhouse today has 30.2 million total installs, 18.7 million of which are on iOS, Sensor Tower says.

Other top audio apps include Airtime, with 11.4 million iOS installs, out of a total of 14.3 million (including Android); and Spoon, with 7.6 million iOS installs, out of a total of  27.3 million.

International apps like UAE’s Yalla and China’s Lizhi are massive, as well, with the former sporting 48.1 total installs, 3.8 million of which are on iOS. The latter has 29.5+ million total installs, but only a handful on iOS.

There are other newcomers that have managed to stake smaller claims in the social audio space, too, including Fishbowl (759,000 total installs), Cappuccino (497,000 installs), Riff (339,000 installs) and Sonar (154,000 installs.)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower. The firm analyzed 34 social audio apps. The chart shows those with the most installs.  

Spotify Greenroom’s launch last month, meanwhile, seems to have attracted only a small fraction of Spotify’s larger user base, which has now grown to 365 million monthly active users.

The majority of Greenroom’s installs — around 106,000 — took place after Greenroom’s official launch on July 16, 2021 through July 25, 2021, Sensor Tower says. Counting only its Greenroom installs, the app is ranked at No. 12 among social audio apps. It follows Tin Can, which gained 127,000 installs since launching in early March.

Because Greenroom took over Locker Room’s install base, some portion of Greenroom’s total iOS installs (141K) included downloads that occurred when the app was still Locker Room. But that number is fairly small. Sensor Tower estimates Locker Room saw only around 35,000 total iOS installs to date. That includes the time frame of October 26, 2020 — the month when the sports chat app launched to the public — up until the day before Greenroom’s debut (July 15, 2021).

We should also point out that downloads are not the same thing as registered users, and are far short of active users. Many people download a new app to try it, but then abandon it shortly after downloading it, or never remember to open it at all.

That means the number of people actively using Greenroom at this time, is likely much smaller that these figures indicate.

Spotify declined to comment on third-party estimates.

While Sensor Tower looked at competition across social audio apps on the app stores, Spotify’s competition in the live audio market won’t be limited to standalone apps, of course.

Other large tech platforms have more recently integrated social audio into their apps, too, including Facebook (Live Audio Rooms), Twitter (Spaces), Discord (Stage Channels) and trading app Public. A comparison with Greenroom here is not possible, as these companies would have to disclose how many of their active users are engaging with live audio, and they have not yet done so.

Despite what may be a slower uptake, Greenroom shouldn’t be counted out yet. The app is brand-new, and has time to catch up if all goes well. (And if the market for live audio, in general, continues to grow — even though the height of Covid lockdowns, which prompted all this live audio socializing in the first place, seems to have passed.)

Spotify’s success or failure with live audio will be particularly interesting to watch given the potential for the company to cross-promote live audio shows, events, and artist-produced content through its flagship streaming music application. What sort of programming Greenroom may later include is still unknown, however.

Following Spotify’s acquisition of Locker Room maker Betty Labs, the company said it would roll out programmed content related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition to sports. It also launched a Creator Fund to help fuel the app with new content. 

But so far, Spotify hasn’t given its users a huge incentive to visit Greenroom.

The company, during its Q2 2021 earnings, explained why. It said it first needed to get Greenroom stabilized for a “Spotify-sized audience,” which it why it only soft-launched the app in June. Going forward, Spotify says there will be “more tie-ins” with the main Spotify app, but didn’t offer any specifics.

“Obviously we’ll leverage our existing distribution on Spotify,” noted Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “But this feels like a great way to learn, experiment and iterate, much faster than if we had to wait for a full on integration into the main app,” he added.

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Google unveils its proposed ‘Safety Section’ for apps on Google Play – TechCrunch

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In the wake of Apple’s advances into consumer privacy with initiatives like App Tracking Transparency and App Store privacy labels, Google recently announced its own plans to introduce a new “safety section” on Google Play that offers more information about the data apps collect and share, and other security and privacy details. Today, the company is sharing for the first time what the new section’ user interface will look like, along with other requirements for developers.

In May, Google explained the safety section would be designed to easily communicate to users how apps are handling their data, so they could make informed choices. It said app developers would need to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstall, among other things.

In the user interface concept Google debuted today, developers are now able to see how this feature will look to the end user.

Image Credits: Google

In the safety section, users will be able to see the developer’s explanation of what data the app collects followed by those other details, each with their own icon to serve as a visual indicator.

When users tap into the summary, they’ll be able to then see other details like what data is collected or shared — like location, contacts, personal information (e.g., name, email address), financial information and more.

They’ll also be able to see how the data is used — for app functionality, personalization, etc. — and whether data collection is optional. 

Image Credits: Google

Google says it wants to give developers plenty of time to prepare for these Play Store changes which is why it’s now sharing more information about the data type definitions, user journey and policy requirements of the new feature. 

It notes that all developers will have to provide a privacy policy by April 2022. Before, only apps that collected personal and sensitive user data were required to do so. Developers will also be required to share accurate and complete information about all the data in their safety section, including how it’s used by the app’s third-party libraries and SDKs. This is in line with what Apple demands for its apps.

Image Credits: Google

In October 2021, developers will be able to submit their information in the Google Play Console for review, ahead of the planned launch of the safety section in Google Play, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022.

The company also notes it’s offering some buffer time after the section’s launch before apps must have their safety section approved by Google. However, the company says apps will have to be approved by Q2 2022 or risk having their app submissions or app updates rejected. And if an app doesn’t provide an approved safety section, the app will say “No information available.”

The change will help to highlight how many active developers are present on Google Play, as those will be the ones who will adopt the new policy and showcase how their apps collect and use data.

The question that remains is how stringent Google will be about enforcing its new guidelines and how carefully apps will be reviewed. One interesting note here is that conscientious developers will be able to submit their safety section for a third-party review and then be able to promote that to users concerned app data privacy and security.

This could help to address some potential criticism that these safety sections aren’t factual. That’s been a problem for Apple since the launch of its App Store privacy labels, in fact. The Washington Post discovered that a number of apps were displaying false information, making them less helpful to the users whose data they aimed to protect.

When reached for comment, however, Google declined to share more details about how the third-party verification process will work.

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