The Food-Scam Side of Instagram

How a robotic 'influencer' won support of New York restaurants

The Lempert Report

Chris Buetti, a New York-based data engineer, has a detailed post on Medium about just how he used Instagram to scam free food from some of the finest restaurants in the city.

The overused term “influencer” these days refers not to the expertise of an individual but rather to their number of social media followers. Brands of all kinds, not just food, clamor for and offer paid sponsorships and endorsement deals, free products, free trips and just about anything they can to move the needle for their products’ awareness and, hopefully, sales.

So Buetti programmed an Instagram influencer bot that is completely automated. “Since its inception,” he told The Take Out, “I haven’t even really logged into the account. I spend zero time on it.” The bot automatically scraped photos from other New York-centric Instagram accounts (which is legal) and added captions and hashtags that were indistinguishable from what a human would write. Through artificial intelligence, Buetti “taught” the bot what types of photos were of the best quality, and also programmed it to follow, like and engage with commenters. The account garnered more than 25,000 followers and is still growing.

He then wrote more code so that the account would automatically find Manhattan restaurants on Instagram, to reach out to them with a semi-customized message: “We would love to make some sort of deal with you to sponsor your establishment. … In exchange, I would ask for a free experience, small gift card, discount or coupon to your place.” It worked, reports The Take Out: His Gmail inbox filled up with offers. 

In his own blog post, he writes, “The results are better than you might initially imagine. I have restaurants basically throwing gift cards and free meals my way in exchange for an Instagram promotion.” He even posted screenshot emails from restaurants, redacted to protect their identity, that reveal the stark tit-for-tat world of influencers: “We’d love to offer you and a guest dinner in exchange for a post. Here’s the offer: 2 small plates, 2 entrees, 2 rounds of drinks or 1 bottle of house wine.”

Restaurants, grocerants and brands, beware.


More from our partners