If you’re an avid Instagram user, you’ve probably witnessed a “loop giveaway,” in which influencers instruct their followers to comment, tag friends, and follow upwards of 60 accounts (sometimes more) in order to enter for a chance to win money. They’re occasionally billed as “being for charity” (like a recent giveaway post by Vanessa Grimaldi, of Bachelor fame), which sounds nice until you realize that influencers usually pool money to for the prize or were promised new followers by the agencies conducting the giveaways. Essentially, they exist for the purpose of building audience and engagement—they’ve been called “the fastest and cheapest way to grow on Instagram.” 

There is such as thing as a legal and proper giveaway, and these are kosher marketing techniques. For influencers, they’re often in partnership with a brand, and the rules, written or at least approved by the brand’s corporate lawyer, are presented clearly in the caption of the post. The brand and the influencer gain followers, engagement, and brand awareness, which is never a bad thing. The best giveaways either ask for something fun and simple—“post something cute with our hashtag!”—or barely require anything at all. Maybe it’s a simple, “Tag a friend in the comments!”

The worst ones, on the other hand, involve many steps and little to no transparency. “Buying” followers via loop giveaways is a morally dubious practice at best and an abuse of the platform at worst (confirmed by the recent investigation into influencers giving away a $16,000 Hyundai). Like Instagram itself, skeptical users are catching on to this. 

Savvy users have had a little help: the “anti-influencer” accounts. With 19,000 and 87,000 followers, respectively, Influencers Truth and Deux Moi have become must-follows in the same vein as fashion-industry watchdog Diet Prada—revealing deceptive practices, dishonest behavior, and borderline-illegal FTC violations by some of the most popular Instagram influencers on the platform, along with eye-opening breakdowns of how these “loop giveaways” work.

In its Stories, Influencers Truth has also jumped the disturbing story of Myka Stauffer and her husband, American YouTubers who in 2016 began documenting their adoption of a special-needs child from China, soliciting donations along the way—only for him to quietly disappear from their videos this winter, and the family to later admit, under pressure from their followers, that they rehomed him.

The accounts aren't putting all influencers on blast—they’re highlighting examples of authenticity, transparency, and charitable work. Still, “there’s definitely an element of smoke and mirrors at play in the influencer industry,” says Blair [names have been changed], who works in communications and marketing full-time, and started the Influencers Truth account in early April 2020 in the wake of Arielle Charnas’ COVID-19 scandal. “And it’s almost like the wild west in terms of disclosing brand partnerships. There aren’t rules for giveaways, followers typically aren’t aware that influencers are making money via affiliate links, and Instagram just allows it.”

“It’s about honesty and transparency, two things people really crave right now and aren’t really getting.” —Delilah

For those, like Blair, who are familiar with the inner workings of influencer marketing, it may seem obvious that content creators have been earning money on swipe-ups and affiliate links for years. But after posting a now-viral screenshot of fashion blogger Sarah Tripp (@sassyredlipstick) explaining why she wouldn’t do a J. Crew try-on haul after the company declared bankruptcy and ended their affiliate program, Blair says she was shocked by how many Instagram users weren’t aware of the practice, which she blames on a lack of transparency by some influencers: “It’s completely deceptive.” (For the record, it’s against FTC guidelines for influencers to not disclose affiliate partnerships on swipe-ups, and countless content creators are guilty of excluding or obscuring the necessary “ad” or “partner” hashtags.) 

Delilah, the woman behind Deux Moi, a private account with 81,000 followers, primarily posts celebrity gossip and blind items but also dips her toes into the influencer pond, typically calling them out for deceiving their followers. She started the account as a lifestyle blog with a friend in 2013, but pivoted after splitting with the cofounder and now runs it on her own. Her MO includes posting juicy direct messages from fans, while blocking out identifying information to keep sources anonymous. “This account is for fun, and I don’t independently verify anything I post,” she’s careful to say, “but I always correct myself if I get passed wrong information.” She works in the entertainment industry (somewhat adjacent to those she reports on, she says), which is how she gets so many inside scoops. 

Both Influencers Truth and Deux Moi recently shared a particularly fishy #ad disclosure: a post by influencer Lauren Kay, in which the hashtag was purposefully disguised to first match her background and then her black pants, apparently by using the “select color” tool on Instagram stories. 

“People want to know if someone they look up to is doing [something questionable], and I think people like my account because it’s no BS,” Delilah says. “It’s about honesty and transparency, two things people really crave right now and aren’t really getting.” 

“I think the pandemic has put things into perspective for a lot of Instagram users,” says Delilah. “People want to be heard, to get things off their chest, and to vent their frustrations.”

Whether she’s sharing plastic surgery rumors or calling out mega-influencers for attributing their eye-popping hair growth to a vitamins brand (rather than the hair extensions alleged by sources in her DMs), Delilah thinks it’s important to shine a light on the fact that nothing is really as it seems. “Your favorite influencers don’t naturally look flawless,” she says. (She also shared messages from several followers who bought those “magical hair vitamins” after being duped by the influencer, and were met with less-than-stellar results.)

During quarantine, both women have seen massive jumps in followers, but neither of them plan to monetize their accounts. “A lot of people are thanking me for not only what the account is doing in terms of spreading awareness, which is really the only reason I do this, but also how much entertainment I’m bringing to their feeds right now,” Blair says. “It’s turned into a fun little community, especially during quarantine when everyone’s stuck at home and needing a distraction.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated the cracks in the influencer economy, making tone-deafness and the obvious disparities between privileged influencers and their followers that much more obvious. But Blair insists it isn’t her goal to bash all influencers; she has a highlight on her page featuring “good” influencers sent in by followers and small businesses she wants to bring exposure to. 

“If you work hard for your money and show ways to give back without constantly flaunting it, that’s great,” she says. “But I think a lot of influencers think they can carry on with their glamorous lives—posting throwback photos on private planes in head-to-toe Gucci—and that they still deserve free everything, [while] people and businesses are really struggling.” 

It’s a standard practice for influencers to request free things from brands in exchange for exposure, and can often be a win-win for all parties involved. But in the midst of COVID-19, more businesses are cracking down on the practice, and scolding influencers in the process. Blair recently shared a post from a restaurant owner asking influencers to stop asking for free food since “exposure” isn’t paying his bills. She says he graciously responded, thanking her for spreading the message.

“They act like they have something to hide, which makes my followers even more invested in what’s going on behind the scenes.” —Blair

“I think the pandemic has put things into perspective for a lot of Instagram users,” says Delilah. “People want to be heard, to get things off their chest, and to vent their frustrations.”

Delilah says that she responds to everyone who reaches out to her through the account. “I spend about seven hours a day, seven days a week on my account, posting screenshots and answering or acknowledging every single DM I get,” she says. “It’s extremely time-consuming, and I don’t make money from it, but if people take the time to message me—even if it’s a mean message—they deserve to be recognized. Without followers, there is no account.”

Blair also pours hours a week into her account, and she credits her followers for surfacing shady behavior. “They send me screenshots, they reach out to brands for partnering with problematic people,” she says. “They’re a huge help.”  

Blair has watched in real time as her followers hold brands to account for associating with influencers they deem troublesome. “I reached out to Invisalign twice and no response. As a customer of theirs, I’m very disappointed,” reads one comment on her post about Sarah Tripp (which also features screenshots of unearthed racist tweets by both her and her husband). Invisalign responded that they’ve reached out to the customer via DM, and another commenter joins the exchange to say they’ll “cancel their Invisalign appointments indefinitely” if the brand continues to work with the influencer.

“Do you recommend we reach out to these companies? I’m bored and I got time and plenty of shade to go around,” reads another. 

To quell backlash, brands have deleted Instagram stories and posts to seemingly distance themselves from the influencers in question—and allegedly even dropped them, too. 

Even though many influencers have preemptively blocked Influencers Truth (including the Tripps, Sims, and Charnas), Blair says that doesn’t hinder the account’s mission. In fact, it’s exactly what she’d expect. “They act like they have something to hide, which makes my followers even more invested in what’s going on behind the scenes.”

It begs the question: In 2020, who’s influencing who?