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The Shady Underbelly of Social Media - A Case Study

15/07/21 (10 Minute Read)

Blog Image - The Shady Underbelly of Social Media - A Case Study

Like an iceberg, most of the shadiness of social media happens under the surface. Not a day goes by that we don’t get an automated DM asking us if we are interested in buying fake followers and engagement, or whether we’d like an account with hundreds of thousands of followers to shout us out…for a price. People who have had massive fat loss transformations will also be familiar with companies contacting them to ask would they be interested in telling people they had used their product in order to make the change.

 

Recently though, I stumbled on an account that was so intriguing to me I had to dust off my copies of The Famous Five and get investigating. Strap yourself in, we’re talking stolen valour, fake reviews, magic beans, and even people who don’t actually exist.

 

I talk about the failings of social media a lot, if you’re a regular listener to our PODCAST, you might think I talk about it too much! But I do it because it’s important - to the regular consumer of social media it can easily go unnoticed.

 

The game begins

A few weeks ago, I was about to get into bed when my partner handed me her phone. On the screen was an Instagram post containing a side by side shot of what looked like two different women in bikinis but was instantly recognisable as one of the millions of before and after “transformation” images that are ubiquitous on social media. Without reading the caption I gave my partner a quizzical look. She prompted “Look at her stomach – the tattoo

 

She was right, the woman in the “before” shot had a very large tattoo under her belly button and the woman in the “after” shot did not. For some reason this annoyed me, I mean if you’re going to insult our intelligence at least do it competently.

 

A quick click into the comments showed a number of people questioning the tattoo and an equal number of people telling us there was nothing to see here, everything was legit and that the woman in the picture had just had a tummy tuck which removed her tattoo. A seemingly reasonable justification that I was prepared to let go because A) maybe it was true and B) who has the energy to get worked up about every single charlatan on social media?

 

But then I saw the profile and the caption….

 

The profile posting the image was an account with hundreds of thousands of followers (sounds familiar) recommending the incredible weight loss* work of another account called @sarahxnutrition

*Since THIS PODCAST I recorded with Sean Fitzgerald I have tried my best to remove the term “weight loss” from my vocabulary and use “fat loss” instead. In this instance I am sticking true to their wording

 

Taking a closer look

Sarah’s profile was full to the brim of transformation pictures and, in fairness to her, MOST of the after pictures at least looked like they were the same person as the before pictures so I suppose that could be considered some form of progress!

 

The captions on the images were even more interesting, they all promised massive weight loss without any change to your routine, you just had to click the link in her bio to find out how. I’ve been back to her profile since and the article she links to has changed but is very similar to the one that was there the night I was scrolling in bed. Both articles look like a professional PR article about a woman named Sarah who had “discovered” the secret to weightloss – apple cider vinegar and a supplement called “Keto Complete.” By combining these two products together you don’t have to move more, eat less or change anything at all and apparently the lbs will just drop off you. I read this article and I thought “My word, gyms are redundant, trainers are unnecessary, we must get the word out about this discovery.

 

I see fake people

I wanted to get in touch with the journalist who wrote the article, Suzanne Pischner, so I googled her.  My heart sank – it appears Suzanne Pischner doesn’t exist. Or at least she only exists when she’s needed to write articles for phony fat loss products:

 

https://www.buzzfeed.com/victoriasanusi/this-woman-called-out-blac-chyna-for-using-her-weight-loss

  • “A link in the bio of the deleted account took users to an apparently "viral" story by a writer called Suzanne Pischner, who has no real presence online apart from being associated with these types of weight loss articles. Quartz has debunked the story, and called into question whether Pischner even exists.”

 

Looking back, one red flag for me reading the article, among a sea of other enormous red flags, was the fact that despite the glowing “reviews” at the bottom of the page, there was no place for me to leave a review or post a comment. Strange that, don’t you think?

 

Keep pulling the thread

Ok, so the article in the bio was a dead end, time to do some more digging. Back to the Instagram feed I go… There is a lot to digest here but lets start with the transformation photos themselves. One thing that was obvious was that the only person tagged in the photo was Sarah herself. There are mixed opinions on before and after shots in the fitness industry but one thing that is common among fair minded fitness professionals who do post before and after shots of their clients is that they would have asked permission to share them and thus, generally tag the client as they are happy for them to be in the public domain.

 

Then there was the interaction on the photos – there were thousands of likes but the only comments on each image were from Sarah. It became apparent that the reason for this was that Sarah had limited comments on her profile as I was unable to leave a comment. Now, I am fully aware that social media can be a cesspit and the desire to not allow trolls comment on your posts (That’s why we moderate our reviews for trolls on thegymadvisors.ie) but when combined with all the other causes for concern, it becomes a big red flag waving in the wind.

 

Tineye Dancer

The next step was to see where the images came from. And trust me, if you ever want to play internet detective, tineye.com is an invaluable resource. I screenshotted some of the images from Sarah’s feed and uploaded them on Tineye. Within seconds I discovered that while some of the images returned no results, others had appeared on other websites who were also claiming the transformations were down to their “miracle” products. It soon became clear, at the very least, this was a case of stolen credit. People working hard to transform their bodies and having the images stolen (or bought!) and used to sell their magic beans to desperate, unsuspecting people on social media.

 

Why stop at the feed images?

It was at this point that I began to think “If the articles and the feed images are fake, what else could be?” Her profile image! One screenshot uploaded on Tineye later and there it was: Her profile picture was a stock image from adobe

 

”Sarah” doesn’t exist.

 

She never has and she never will.

 

But what the person or people behind her have done is create an ecosystem of deceit around her profile that sustains itself and feeds itself with content and desperate customers. Paying for shout outs, tick. Fake professional looking articles, tick. Stolen/secretly bought valour, tick. Fake reviews, tick. And that’s what I found from around 30 minutes of digging. Imagine what is going on that we don’t even know about.

 

What’s the point?

And here’s the thing, me calling this one profile out isn’t going to make any difference. Not one jot. But maybe it’ll save you a few euro next time you see someone pushing the miracle cure, the one true way, the ultimate fat loss hack. And don’t be embarrassed if you’ve fallen for something like this in the past, we all have! But in future, ask some questions, don’t believe everything at face value and, most importantly, do not part with money in the hopes of finding a quick fix because they don’t exist.

 

Of course you can get fit, of course you can transform your health and your body but it takes hard work, it takes patience, and it takes discipline. If you are willing to put in the work and you would like to try something that actually works then finding someone who is invested in your success is the next step.

 

The unneccesary sell

Having someone to guide you and give you strategies that are individual to you and your needs as well as holding you accountable is the perfect antidote to the nonsense that social media can provide. You can find a Fitness Professional near you HERE or if you want some remote help you can find our list of Online Coaches and Instructors HERE