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How I survived a bot attack, stumbling through a sea of click farms.

Almost a year ago, I decided to open up a business. I had no idea what I was doing, or what my business would be, but I’d had the urge to do it for a number of years, and I knew I just needed to start it.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial, albeit up till now not that good at it. And I wanted to have another stream of income which could interact with and support my theatre and arts work. I didn’t want to have to chase funding or work tirelessly on programs and long day hauls at community festivals, getting paid not much once all the hours of preparation and pack down were included. I was (and still am) mentoring people to find inner stability and direction, which I love, but I didn’t want to rely on that for an income either. I knew that to be good at mentoring, I needed to free myself, to work from my own voice, no longer dumbing my voice down to fit into some social art model, and no longer fearing to step into the larger arena. I was still unaware of how my executive function was impacted by my neurodivergence. Or the distortion caused by rejection dysphoria. Repeated life trauma originating in childhood trauma (CPTSD) had created negative conditioning around my sense of worthiness which I was in the process (and still am) of examining and reprogramming. It clearly wasn’t going to be easy. Yet I was itching to remove all the barriers and ceilings I had experienced up till then around my capacity, my voice, my expression, my earnings.

Indeed, I knew I just needed to do it.

Then, I had an inspiration; I could turn my colourful botanic art, which I had started doing as a therapeutic thing, into products. I was incredibly naïve about it. Naïve that people would be interested in my designs, or that they would accept my sudden shift from being a theatre artist into selling t-shirts online. It was clunky and awkward, and had people confused, that’s for sure.

But I was inspired. Fuelled by the excitement of a new idea, of potential, and many many YouTube videos telling me ANYTHING is possible. I imagined my new business as a vehicle which I just needed to get up and get running, so I could begin to steer it in the direction I want. And I was right. Now I am at the point where I am starting to steer that vehicle. But getting that vehicle up was a lot more challenging than any of those YouTube videos let on. And this story perhaps highlights how things can be a lot more complex than we think, but also, how that is OK, and that the journey is just as important as the destination.

I took the first big step towards bringing my new business into the public domain, without even knowing what I was doing, by opening an Instagram account. Below is my first post. I cringe a little now reading it. I sound so naive!

But although it’s naive, it’s still true, all of it. I mean I was deluding myself about being a visual artist. I was in an intense hyperfocus with my art at the time, and so driven. And plants were giving me a lot of healing. The fact is that I feel balanced if I am making art and connecting with nature alongside what ever else I am doing. I was giving myself permission to make that shift, towards living a more balanced life.

I added my hashtags. I cringe even more hahahahaha. Especially as I knew very little yet about the t-shirt industry or business models, or any of these things.

I didn’t share it with friends. I didn’t want to let thoughts of other people’s opinions or doubts affect me as I set sail. I just released it as it was, into the Instagram algorithm.

I had until that point largely avoided Instagram.

Too much social media is overwhelming for me. My thoughts jump around everywhere as it is. The last thing I wanted to do was to add another distraction.

I had opened my personal account only a couple of years earlier, related to performance work, because a producer insisted so I could be tagged. I rarely posted there. Still don’t much. So I knew very little about how it all works.

But immediately, perhaps because new accounts are given priority in the instagram algorithm, my new Botanic Mystic instagram post raked up 30 or more likes. And a whole lot of attention in the comment thread. The like count and comments is now lower as you can see in the above photo, and if you read the rest of this you will understand why.

Several arts promoters liked and commented on my post. One art promoter, The Art Factory, shared it to their story and tagged me. I was astounded. The Art Factory had 2.2 million followers! A few more people followed me after this. I replied to the Art Factory, thanking them for the share.

Very quickly they replied:

I couldn’t believe that my artwork and bold vision was already gaining traction! It was already being championed by a big arts promoter! It seemed straightforward. They would share my work in a story or post, and tag me. And all of their millions of viewers would see my work, and I’ll maybe even get some followers. I mean, how could they not be interested? Look at these amazing art works! Look at my vision for peace and love in the world!

So I looked at their price list, and selected the one which included two permanent posts and 5 stories. I couldn’t imagine how it could generate 5K followers, but who knows, with 2.2 million followers anything might be possible. Just a few genuine followers would make me very happy. That was all I expected. Those who might be interested in coming on a journey with me, to where the deep veins of art and healing and love intersect….

I went about my business, and a few hours later, I noticed my new instagram account had started to get followers.

I checked the Art Factory’s account, and indeed, they had shared my artwork.

At first I was excited. People are following me! They must have seen my work and liked it!

But the followers didn’t stop

They just kept coming and coming. Suddenly I had over 1000 followers! And they were all so strange looking. I showed my son my account.

He laughed.

You have paid for bots mum.

Bots?

Yeah, they are fake accounts.

Really?

I had heard about bots but I didn’t really know that much about them. I did some research online and learnt very quickly that the best advice is to delete them. They are dead wood to your algorithm, not interacting with posts and preventing organic traffic from seeing your posts. I felt like my account had had a bin full of slimy rubbish thrown over it!

The bot wave slowed to a stop. I had just under 2000 followers. Well, that was a mistake. ‘I’ll just put it behind me’ I thought. And never talk to that promoter again! How silly of me! Now, time to clean up my account….

I leant from my online research how to tell if an account is a bot: the account usually has no posts, or multiple posts done on the same date, and it often follows thousands of accounts, with very few or no followers itself. Bot accounts often have strange names, with numbers or symbols, and weird reading bios.

You can learn more about identifying bots here.

But some of this influx of followers seemed like real accounts. Sure, not my target audience. Many seemed to be from India, African countries, South American Countries, the Middle East. Probably not likely to be interested in buying botanic t-shirts from me, but who am I to judge?

The question is, how can I tell if these accounts are bots or not?

I found a YouTube video on the topic created by an Instagram staffer, who suggested if you are unsure if a follower is a bot, message them and thank them for the follow. If they respond, then you know they are real. If they don’t respond, delete.

I like that idea! That feels human again. Yes, that’s what I will do!

So I began the arduous task of deleting bot accounts which were obvious, and messaging the ones who I was unsure of. My thought was, if they reply, they stay. hahahahah. Anyway, this sent me on quite an adventure.

It was exhausting. There were so many accounts to go through. But I was diligent. You could say obsessive… Every bot which was obvious, I deleted, and if they looked potentially like a real account, I messaged them. I gave them 24 hours to reply. If they didn’t reply within that time frame, they were out.

And some Accounts did respond!

I was unsure, why any of these might want to follow me. Or how they came to even see my account in the first place, but anyway, they seemed nice, so they stayed.

Meanwhile, various promoters were watching. I felt like I was being circled by sharks. Many of them reached out. Here are just a few of them:

And this one:

Then there was this one:

Recovering people pleaser here!

After a huge effort, I managed to sort through the bots and fake accounts after a couple of days. My following went from close to 2000 to around 50, those who originally followed when I first posted, and some of the accounts who had responded to my thank you message. ‘Whew, I’m glad that chapter is over!’ I thought to myself. Now at last I have my life back! And I’ve got some followers! Back to making some art!

Then, that evening another flood of followers started coming in. I noticed a few before bed, and I was a little concerned, but didn’t worry too much. I guess bots had been normalised for me by now. I expected that on Instagram bots would be everywhere. But in the morning I had over 2000 new followers and they were not letting up. They were constantly following me, more and more and more. I literally nearly had a breakdown. I had no idea how to stop it. I changed my account to private but the requests just kept building. And I didn’t want my account to be private. I was proud of my account. It took a lot of courage to spill my guts in that opening post. Going private was like giving into defeat!

I reached out to the promoter at The Art Factory who I had paid.

OMG ……Reading this now I am in hysterics at how naive I still was! But I don’t know even if he could stop it. They weren’t stopping. My follower count rose to over 3000 in a couple of hours. It was like a army of ghouls from hell, coming to drown me in murky slime.

In desperation I googled again, this time something like ‘what should I do if large amounts of bots are inundating my account?’ And that’s when I first read the term ‘bot attack’. Indeed, as I searched for information I saw that bots are sometimes used to sabotage an account, inundating it with bots and destroying it’s place in the algorithm. Had I done something wrong? Was someone out to get me? I wish I had of screen shot my account back then to show you how popular I suddenly was. Finally I came across an article which helped me. It said the quickest way to stop a bot attack is to change your user name. So I changed my user name from Botanicymystic to Botanic.mystic

And immediately, they stopped.

OMG. Why didn’t I know this before!

In the space of a few hours I had nearly 4000 followers.

Some articles suggested deleting your account after a bot attack, but I was still so proud of opening of my account, and the courage it took, that I didn’t want to delete it. Or for someone to take my new business name.  Plus I didn’t want to give in. I was not going to surrender!

Maybe it’s my ADHD or a trauma response, but I felt absolutely obligated to treat every single one of those accounts with the same respect and dignity that I showed the first lot. That is, to reach out to the ones I wasn’t sure about, and see if there is anyone behind the account. So I again began the painstaking process of deleting bot accounts and messaging those which weren’t obvious.

There were more of the friendly type of messages…

Then there came this one, which seemed like a type of warning. They deleted my message, replied, then quickly unfollowed me. They never responded again.

In fact, I was noticing many of them were unfollowing me even after replying. More weird replies came in.

Who were these people? Why were they even responding to me? How did anyone know I had ‘paid’ for bots? and why were they unfollowing me after following me?

I kept reading about bots to try to understand, and it was around then that I finally learnt about click farms. Yeah I am behind, I know, people were talking about it in 2015! But not me. This was all new to me.

So what is a click farm?

According to Diggit Magazine: A click farm consists of a large group of workers who are hired to click on paid advertising links, like, share, comment, subscribe, follow, or leave reviews for any social media page or account. It is a form of click fraud that helps companies and individuals gain online influence.

According to Wikipedia: as well as inflating engagement on social media, click farms are used for click fraud and ad fraud practices. This includes inflating the clicks and traffic on websites so that publishers can collect a fraudulent payout. This same traffic can also be hired to damage the paid ad campaigns of business rivals, known as competitor click fraud.

Click farms are typically set up in poor countries, the working conditions are terrible, and the pay is very low. They are monitored very closely. One worker interviewed in diggit said he was told to not save anything in order to avoid leaving a documentation trail. Which would explain why I was unfollowed by those following me.

This image of a click farm worker apparently went viral in 2015. I found it in diggit magazine when I was managing my bot attack in 2023.

This article in fraudO gives more insight into the conditions of workers in click farms:

  • On average, click workers earn $1 for every 1,000 clicks performed. If we hypothetically assume that a worker performs one click every two seconds, this would be an hourly wage of 1.80 US dollars – completely without breaks or slackening of concentration.
  • A click farm runs around the clock, usually with individual employees working eight to ten hour shifts. Breaks or distractions are not allowed, listening to music during the very monotonous and repetitive “work” is prohibited.

So were all the people who had responded to me actually messaging from click farms, through a series of fake or hacked accounts? I tried to find out a bit more, but it was difficult to get information. Radio silence whenever I mentioned click farms:

Once I figured out that the people responding were likely from click farms, I so wanted to be able to connect. And I felt very moved that they even took a moment to respond to me, the good, the bad and the ugly, if they were working under such conditions. Somehow, those communications across the ether suddenly really meant a lot to me. Because who knows, what hopes and aspirations any of these people might have. What their dreams are. How they must dream of flying free from their lives, trapped in click farms. But no one answered any further, at least not truthfully.

This story ends without a bang. I went through and cleaned out all of my followers, as I promised myself. In the end I ended up with around 100. Then they dropped away as fake or hacked accounts unfollowed me or were deleted. They were replaced by real people following. But some of those accounts are still there. Somehow, there is a sense of something shared. Across the ether. Across the internet. Though the darkness. Into the void. I still am not too good at using instagram, but you are welcome to follow me, if you like.

Disclaimer- Some of the screenshots used to tell this story have been edited to allow for practical story telling!

References:

Diggit Magazine https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/look-behind-scenes-click-farms

fraudO fraudO

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_farm

Botanic Mystic Instagram Account: https://www.instagram.com/botanicmystic

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