Surely you’ve heard of the blue verification tick on Instagram, that little sign that proves someone’s authority and influence, while increasing their reputation at the same time. Before influencers were a thing, only big celebrities like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian had the right to that tick. Now, brands prefer social media influencers with an organic audience, a specific reach, and that blue tick to the right of their name.
With the growing desire to have a blue tick and its second to none impact on who you are on the platform, it only makes sense that hackers saw this as an opportunity to scam people for their money. Online scammers offer to sell verified Instagram accounts to users or offer to get the account verified in exchange for big money (it appeared that some people paid thousands of dollars for it). In trying to pay for a blue verification badge, users are redirected to a website that looks just like Instagram’s official page, through this site hackers are able to grab all of these users’ account information. This means that scammers gain access to email address, username, and password associated with the account. They then use this data as blackmail to withdraw more money from people. In some cases where the user is unable to pay the amount required, hackers can sometimes threaten to release the user’s data online.
Other scamming techniques included hackers finding users’ phone numbers and chatting with them on WhatsApp and by telephone. Some of the hacking network has been shut down, but it is just one of many groups of people seeking to exploit Instagram’s verification tick for personal gain. This dark new side of Instagram shows how concerning the verification system is. If people fall for this scam in the first place, it’s because, with influencers flooding their timeline, getting the blue tick now seems possible when it was out of the question only a few years ago.
Being ‘verified’ comes with perks. It’s harder to impersonate you, your comments stay on top of everyone else’s, and let’s face it, it just looks cooler. In 2018, Instagram introduced a public verification-request form, making the number of verified users balloon. The company never released the exact number of verified accounts, but more and more influencers seem to have it and the correlation between fame or even the number of followers you have has become more obscure. The fine line between celebrities and average users is now blurred and everyone wants to be part of the influencer category, macro or micro ones.
Screen Shot spoke to Mai Raunstrup Laursen, campaign coordinator at Brandheroes, a Danish influencer management company that just launched its own app in the U.K. “It seems like it has become way easier to get the tick. I see people ranging from 2,000 to 2 million followers getting the tick, which means the tick is becoming more and more irrelevant”, says Laursen. When asked about what needs to be improved on Instagram for the company’s business to thrive, she answered, “The removal of fake followers. Just like hackers, they make our job more difficult because we have to make sure brands get exactly what they paid for”.
Other legitimate companies have also started offering help on getting the highly coveted Instagram verification badge, such as PR News io which can help anyone with getting mentions in federal and global media to go through the verification process on Instagram and get the blue badge.
The way brands and people look at that blue tick has changed. It is more accessible than before, and therefore more common. But when something you don’t have is classified as common, you’ve got to have it—whether it’s free or whether you have to pay for it. It is easy to assume that if this many people have ‘achieved’ verification, it must be something you can buy. In other words, in the flurry to ‘not get left behind’, it has become easy to fall for a scam. Until Instagram publicly explains what the blue verification tick really means on the platform, and offers a transparent process on how to achieve it, hackers and online scammers will exploit people’s confusion and unquenchable desire for it.
In an effort to improve authenticity and boost trust, Instagram gave people more access to the blue verification tick. What did we do with it? We turned it into another thing that makes social platforms profitable for our own self-promotion and profits. This problem shows how dubious we should be, as social media users, and it should only push us to be more careful with how open we can be on the platforms we deem so trustworthy.
Just like with everything else, let’s question what we’re used to seeing, pay attention, and stop caring that much about how other people perceive us through our online presence. Paying for that verification badge should not validate your self-worth, and it is not going to work either, because like Mai Raunstrup Laursen said, “We are living in a time of catfishing”.
You may have seen the hashtag #BlueforSudan trending on Instagram and Twitter, or perhaps you’ve seen people changing their profile photos to the colour blue. Sudan was in a blackout, while the world watched.
Earlier this month, Sudan’s military leaders have reached an agreement with the opposition alliance to share power until elections can be held. Until then, however, the country has faced deadly political unrest and since the military ousted President Omar al-Bashir in April, Sudan has been in turmoil. On 3 June 2019, what started as a peaceful protest resulted in the Khartoum Massacre (over 100 people killed and 70 raped). The internet in the country was almost completely cut off and censored, not only making it difficult to estimate the exact number of people killed and injured, but also making it almost impossible for the people of Sudan to share the hardships they were facing. Internet access has only been partially restored this week.
When an entire country has no means of communication to the rest of the world, and when every piece of information is censored, this inevitably leads to a delay in precise reportage from global news and media outlets. In this particular case, when the world failed to immediately report on a major crisis, social media used its power to take this story and make it go viral. If you’ve wondered why everyone’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts suddenly turned blue, this was to pay tribute to all those who died in the disputes—including 26-year-old Mohammad Mattar, who was killed in the Khartoum Massacre. At the time of his death, Mattar’s profile picture was blue, what soon became a symbol of solidarity with Sudan.
Suddenly, the hashtags #BlueforSudan, #Sudan and #TurnTheWorldBlue all went viral, urging Western media and people to pay attention to the conflict happening. Sudanese New York-based beauty and lifestyle influencer Shahd Khidir played an active part in raising acknowledgement for this by using her platform. She has posted a powerful photo of herself crying, asking everyone to raise awareness and share on the atrocities happening—having to break from her regular scheduled brand posts. Speaking to Screen Shot about how brands have reacted to this, Shahd says that while some were understanding, others pulled out of campaigns not wanting to work with her again—”But I am not upset it was important for me to raise awareness about the Sudan revolution and in essence I don’t really need to do business with brands that don’t support me”. Shahd has taken on the role of a reporter to speak out on these issues when the civilians in Sudan had no way of doing so. Through her persistence and determination, she spoke for those who couldn’t have a voice.
“I definitely feel that social media has been effective in the Sudanese revolution”, says Daad. Daad, a make-up artist and beauty influencer from New York is also one of the Instagram personas whose activism was prominent in bringing recognition and believes that social awareness impacts and educates the public. It’s also important to note that social media bringing awareness also leads to the donations of funds and resources.
But whose responsibility is it really to share and raise awareness? Most importantly, as social media users, we are often judged for being too political or not enough. In that light, do we owe it to always use our voice, no matter how big or small? Selective empathy comes to mind. The immediate reaction to the Notre Dame fire was, rightfully, heavily criticised and compared to the Sudanese crisis. Yet, the most difficult aspect of this all is the fact that politicians all over the world shared messages of solidarity for a building but failed to do so for citizens of a suffering country. And, if we must choose somebody to blame for the lack of awareness, who better than those paid to stay on top of current affairs but who decide that these issues are not significant enough to report on?
As this is the internet after all, when a story begins to circulate on a scale as large as #blueforSudan, trolling, fake news and exploitation is inevitable. By now, you must have seen clickbait posts on your social media, promising that for every follow, like or repost, a meal would be provided for the “starving Sudanese children”. The now-deleted Instagram account @sudanmealproject managed to gain over 1.7 million likes on such a post. While we question how 1.7 million users fell for this idea, we also need to question the logistics of this and how a like can provide physical resources needed to help. Newsflash—it cannot.
How do Instagram accounts such as @sudanmealproject benefit from this? @exposinginstascams is an Instagram account that sheds light on fake news and accounts circulating on the platform. It has successfully exposed accounts attempting to exploit the Sudan crisis. Screen Shot spoke to the 14-year-old account owner—preferring to remain anonymous— who managed to get @sudanmealproject to confess that their intentions are certainly not in Sudan’s best interest, but for self-profit. “Lots of people changed their profile picture to blue to raise awareness, but they didn’t understand they weren’t really helping”, said the @exposinginstascams account-owner, adding that others were just trying “to gain followers and likes”. With substantial engagement, these accounts can gain from advertising and selling on their account. And unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. Just type in ‘Sudan’ and ‘meals’ into your search engines on Instagram and look at how many accounts come up.
Social media has helped bring awareness to the conflict in Sudan. It also presented us with fake news and fake charities trying to benefit from this, which took away credibility from the real issue. “I think that some people are always going to be opportunists and there’s not much we can do but remain concentrated on the bigger picture”, says Daad. And since it is impossible to put an end to the exploitation of people in crisis, we must remain focused on the mission of helping wherever we can.
Sometimes it takes a little more than updating our profile photos or Facebook statuses, but we can use our platforms for the greater good when needed, the same way millions of Instagram users have managed to help bring awareness to Sudan.