Not What They Seem

Uncovering the truth behind impersonation on Instagram

Kristian Crowther

Instagram has grown in popularity since its inception in 2010, garnering more than 1 billion active users in 2018. These accounts take many forms. While the majority are personal accounts, others include humor and business accounts. A small part of Instagram accounts are impersonation accounts, and there are various motivations for creating this type of account. Accounts impersonating UPA’s student publication Aquila as well as ASB have been made on Instagram.  


The fake ASB profiles were intended to be humorous. The creators sought to entertain the followers with posts that were fake from the beginning. Posts like “no more uniform second semester” were published on the account. “[We did it] to inform UPA students about the latest in UPA news and to see just what kind of reaction ASB would give,” the creators said in a private message.  

Monetary Gain

Fake profiles are most often made for the sake of money, and Instagram makes this especially easy. Perpetrators will create an account impersonating a larger account. They will then follow as many people as they can who also follow the larger account. Thinking the fake account is related or is the larger account, many will then follow the fake account back. Once the impersonator reaches a desired amount of followers, they self-disable the account. The account still exists, but is invisible to other users. Users cannot unfollow the account while it is disabled. In several months, the fake account is either sold as is or reappears with a niche matching the larger account’s and is then sold. Sales are conducted on various online markets and prices range from about $50 to $100 for an account with about 10K followers, depending on niche and engagement ratio.

An alternative method for fake accounts to gain followers without impersonating other accounts is the “support method.” For this method, an account is created and a fabricated text conversation is posted. For example, the account might post a text conversation in which a child comes out to their dad. The “parent” responds that they will not respect them for that, but the child proposes that if they get X number of followers on Instagram, the parent has to respect their child’s sexuality. The parent agrees and the child posts on the account to obtain support from the community. This is a way to persuade or guilt people into following the account because of its intriguing, yet fake story.  People then follow the account until it is eventually self-disabled and sold.


The last common reason for impersonation is harassment. Often these accounts are made to imitate a real person. The fake account then posts content that is embarrassing or makes the person look bad as if they were the actual individual. For example, a confession of an embarrassing secret that is not true or a fabricated text conversation “exposing” the person. For those who believe it is the real person, they often end up viewing the person differently, and the posts undoubtedly taint the person’s reputation.