For months now, this has been a conversation on Twitter: the theory that the @KensingtonRoyal Instagram account was quietly buying bot-followers in small amounts very gradually so that the account would always be the “most followed” royal IG account. It became a thing almost as soon as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex started their @SussexRoyal IG in 2019, and Meghan quickly showed the world how adept she was at that Instagram-inspo/impactful social media life. She was producing unique (and often exclusive) content for the SussexRoyal IG, and the account quickly amassed millions of followers. But no matter how good the Sussex content, the KensingtonRoyal account still managed to stay *just* ahead in follower numbers. Just a random social media happenstance or something more nefarious??
Well, Caity Weaver at the New York Times did a lengthy investigation and it is, in a word, hilarious. She literally interviewed dozens of social media experts and professional social media trackers, all to figure out the likelihood of Kensington Palace quietly buying bot-followers to boost their follower numbers to be just above the Sussexes. The piece is really long and detailed, and if you already have a NYT subscription, you should definitely just read the piece here. First, she gets into the history of how the Sussexes started their IG account and how their content was far superior to the Cambridges’ content even in the beginning (the Sussexes began their IG on April 2nd, 2019).
Though Meghan was by no means a global star before her marriage, she had maintained an active and successful personal Instagram account, its profile buoyed by her regular role on a moderately popular American cable legal drama. That account boasted around 2 million followers before its deletion following her engagement (not far from the approximately 2.27 million followers @KensingtonRoyal had when the engagement was announced). Some data:
From its very first post, Harry and Meghan’s new Sussex account was distinct from @KensingtonRoyal — and seemed unmistakably the work of an Instagram veteran. It established a signature color palette (royal blue) and typography (a hybrid of caps-locked roman and lowercase italics). These kinds of personalized elements were absent from @KensingtonRoyal.
According to data provided by CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool that, like Instagram, is owned by Facebook, nine of the 10 most-liked posts ever shared by either @KensingtonRoyal or @SussexRoyal showcase some combination of Harry and Meghan (and/or their son). The single outlier is an image of William and Kate’s two eldest children taken on Princess Charlotte’s first day of school in 2019. (It came in eighth.)
Data generated by the media monitoring software Cision, which tracks online media mentions, found that, from the date of the announcement of Harry and Meghan’s engagement in November 2017 to January 2020, Harry and Meghan received vastly more global online attention than did William and Kate. (Recall, too: They crushed them in Google searches.)
(William and/or Kate did receive more online attention than Harry and/or Meghan on a handful of dates, such as: the day Kate wore a green gown to the BAFTA awards ceremony, out of step with the event’s unofficial all-black dress code to express solidarity with victims of sexual misconduct; the period immediately before and after the birth of William and Kate’s third child; and their daughter’s first day of school.)
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that, from the date of the @SussexRoyal debut until Harry and Meghan’s bombshell announcement this past January, @SussexRoyal’s Meghan-and-Harry-centric posts received more total likes than @KensingtonRoyal posts centered on Kate and William. According to CrowdTangle data, the Sussexes came out around 13.5 million likes ahead. Of course, on Instagram, likes are only one measure of engagement. Another is comments. Harry and Meghan won that by an even bigger margin: In the same time frame, their account received more than double the number of comments that @KensingtonRoyal did, despite @KensingtonRoyal laying claim, perpetually, to hundreds of thousands more followers.
Weaver then discusses the “interaction rate” and suggests that the Sussexes have always had the higher interaction rate with their followers, comment numbers and “likes,” nearly double that of Kensington Royal. It took about six weeks for SussexRoyal IF to get 8 million followers. It took KensingtonRoyal more than four years to get to that number. It was the creation of the SussexRoyal IG that seemed to create quite a stir in the KensingtonRoyal IG followers:
Before Harry and Meghan’s account existed, @KensingtonRoyal might gain something like 1,000 followers on an average good (but not astronomically good) day. But between Jan. 1 and March 31 of last year, its following shrank by nearly 10,000 accounts. The creation of @SussexRoyal seemed to reinvigorate it — and then some. On May 12, the day @SussexRoyal posted a photo of Meghan’s hands holding newborn Archie’s cute tiny baby feet, the account of Archie’s aunt and uncle, @KensingtonRoyal, gained more than 42,000 followers. This despite the fact @KensingtonRoyal had posted no content, as well as the fact that the Sussex post was in honor of a holiday few in Britain were observing: U.S. Mother’s Day.
Then comes the analysis of just how KensingtonRoyal could be purchasing bot followers, and how it’s unlikely that they are buying them en masse, by the tens of thousands, for bulk follower numbers on a daily or weekly basis. It’s far more likely they are getting some kind of service which gives them bot followers a thousand one week, 900 the next week, and so on. One social media expert spoke about how public figures and politicians are doing this to manipulate public opinion, and, regarding mass-bot purchase, “most people leveraging fake followers these days — especially at the behest of well-resourced groups or individuals — are being very careful to avoid suspicion, detection and deletion.”
TL; DR version: The Cambridges are petty clout-chasers spending Charles’ money to buy Instagram followers so they’ll still look special and important even though Harry and Meghan are clearly more popular and interesting.
9 of the combined 10 most popular posts ever shared by Will & Kate's Insta or Harry & Meghan's Insta are about Harry and Meghan. Yet, no matter how many followers Harry & Meghan got, for nearly a year, they could never quiiiite seem to reach Will and Kate https://t.co/8kFkSbPExF pic.twitter.com/Ud3Pfca9ic
— Caity Weaver (@caityweaver) February 27, 2020
Photos courtesy of WENN, Avalon Red, Backgrid and NYT Instagram.