I have talked about this issue privately with friends enough that I think it’s time to drag this issue into the light in a public space. So here we go. It’s probably going to make some people mad, but I think it’s important to talk about.

I am going to completely refrain from naming names and I am going to protect the identities of the people who are involved in these schemes. My intent in writing this post is not to drag people through the mud, but inform social media users of a problem about which they should be aware.

Christian leaders are artificially inflating their influence on Facebook. This is a problem.

As I have coached dozens of Christian leaders on their social media strategies over the last few years, and as I have spent hundreds of hours studying social media strategies, I have seen a disturbing strategic trend. This is a trend that most of the target audiences of these Christian leaders do not recognize, which is what enables these Christian leaders and churches to get away with it.

What is it?

Advertising to international audiences.

Why do people do this? Why is it a problem? Allow me to explain.

Why People Advertise to International Audiences

Advertising on Facebook is one of the most valuable ways to spend your digital advertising budget on the internet today. Advertising on Facebook is awesome.

When you run a Facebook ad, you have a plethora of options when choosing the audience to whom you want to advertise. You can target different genders, age groups, hobbyists, employers, religions, and plenty of other specific audience segments.

If you manage a Facebook page based in, say, North America, boosting to a North American audience is going to cost more per engagement than if you boost to an “International” audience of Facebook users in, say, Indonesia, India, Africa, or otherwise.

Why is this the case? Logically, Facebook engagements from users in the U.S. are going to be more valuable to a U.S.-based Facebook page than Facebook engagements from users based in, say, Indonesia. This is true because if you have a U.S.-based ministry and you’re trying to reach donors or other audiences based in the U.S., or at least the English-speaking world, an engagement from someone in Indonesia, who likely doesn’t speak English, will not be very valuable to you.

Think of it in terms of television advertising. It should cost Omaha Steaks more money to advertise in the United States than in India. Not only because they are a U.S.-based company, but because Indian television is not exactly prime real estate for beef companies. The demand for beef in the U.S. is higher than in India, so the cost to advertise should be higher.

In the same way, Facebook is going to charge a U.S.-based Christian leader more money for U.S.-based, or even just English-speaking, engagement on Facebook than they will charge him for Indonesian engagement. The Indonesian engagement is less valuable to the Christian leader in the eyes of Facebook, unless the Christian leader happens to be trying to reach Indonesians.

Because international engagement is less valuable than domestic engagement, the same amount of money spent on each type of engagement will yield different results. These numbers are theoretical, but $100 spent on a Facebook ad could possibly yield 400 international engagements and maybe just 200 domestic engagements.

So you may wonder, “If an American Christian leader isn’t trying to reach Indonesians, why would he pay $100 to advertise his page to Indonesians instead of paying $100 to advertise to other Americans?”

That’s a good question. Let me answer it for you: to feign influence.

A Christian leader spends $100 to advertise to Indonesians instead of Americans because he can get 400 more Facebook likes instead of 200 more Facebook likes on his page, and he knows you can’t tell a difference.

You, as a Facebook user, cannot see the people who like his page—you can only see the number of people who like his page. So to you, the American user he’s trying to impress with his big Facebook following, 400 new Facebook page likes are better than 200—you can’t tell where those likes came from. Therefore, the Christian leader looks more impressive, and you don’t have the ability to know that those likes are, for all intents and purposes, useless (other than to feign “influence”).

So, why do Christian leaders boost their pages and content to international audiences on Facebook who have no interest in their content (or can even read English)? Because a Christian leader can get more Facebook likes for less money and ultimately look more impressive to you, the American Christian who they are ultimately hoping to impress, and you can’t tell the difference.

In short, you are being tricked into thinking Christian leaders—pastors, authors, and otherwise—are more influential than they actually are. Why does this matter? It matters because Christian leaders get book contracts, jobs, and more because they have learned how to trick people into believing they have, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans that actually have zero interest in them at all.

Why Is This a Problem?

I mean, it should be pretty obvious.

Why is it a problem that a Christian leader would intentionally purchase tens or hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes from international audiences in order to artificially inflate his or her influence?

Because it is deceptive.

Even more, I know of at least one Christian social media professional who is being paid by Christian leaders, ministries, and churches to advise them to adopt this strategy. I know this is happening because through LifeWay Social and other coaching situations, I have had to clean up the rubble of this strategy a handful of times, and every time I come across it, the strategy has been advised by this individual.

So, we can all see why it would be problematic for a Christian leader to adopt this strategy from a ethical standpoint: it’s deceptive. But it’s problematic beyond that, too.

For the Christian leader using the strategy, it will ultimately show itself as ineffective, resulting in the waste of precious time and hundreds or thousands of dollars. I happen to have admin access to the insights of a page that used this strategy. Here is Facebook’s breakdown of the people who have liked the page:

This is a Facebook page of an American Christian leader. Roughly 500, or about 1.4% of the followers of this Facebook page are Americans. About 30,000, or 85.7% of the followers of this page are from Indonesia. Further, about 4,600, or 13% of this page’s followers speak English. That means roughly 87% of the 35,000 people who like this page cannot understand its content.

Can you see the problem? The Christian leader purchases international likes because they are cheap, but they are more than cheap: they’re illegitimate.

Sure, if a Christian leader uses this artificial inflation strategy to get a book deal or a job and he or she gets one, it can count as a “success,” for them, I suppose. But when it comes to actual Facebook engagement, those thousands of international likes will prove to be useless (often because they can’t even speak the language of the page they have liked).

The primary reason Christian leaders are able to use this strategy is because their audience, the everyday American Christian who doesn’t study social media, is not able to detect the difference between a legitimate Facebook following and an illegitimate one.

I want to equip you with the ability to detect the difference between a healthy, engaged Facebook following and a Facebook following that has been fabricated by purchasing international engagement for the sake of keeping up appearances.

How to Tell Someone May Be Faking Influence on Facebook

As a follower of a Facebook page, you don’t have access to the follower breakdown of a page like the one I shared above. Only page administrators have access to those statistics. So, how can you tell when a Facebook page has an artificially inflated Facebook following? It can be difficult, and it isn’t a precise science, but it can be done.

The main thing to look for when investigating whether or not a Facebook page’s following is legitimate is the difference between a page’s total likes and the average amount of engagement it gets on its content.

You can find the total page likes on the upper right hand corner of a Facebook page, as seen here:

You can observe the average engagement on their actual content by looking at the likes, comments, and shares on the content they post to the page, as seen below. Notice the comments for a moment.

The comments may give you a hint that this post has been boosted internationally. The commenters are largely not Americans and they all say the same thing. But, you can investigate a step further by clicking on the number of reactions on a post, 3,500 in the case of this one, and you can see who all has reacted to the post. In the short video below, I scroll through some of the people who have reacted to the post:

This is a difficult, inexact science, because you also cannot see what posts on a page have been boosted with money. Sometimes you can tell because one post is a clear outlier, having much more engagement than any of the other content. This is usually an indication that it has been boosted. Boosting posts is a great strategy. I tell people to do it all the time. It just makes it difficult to investigate a page’s organic engagement because you cannot see what has been boosted.

Let me give you an example of how I investigate whether or not a page has a legitimate following.

First, I look at its total likes, like here:

Then I scroll through a few posts to see what the engagement is. For instance, this page has 955,000 likes. If those likes are legitimate, it should be getting thousands of likes, comments, and shares on everything it posts. But, here are a couple pieces of content from the page with nearly one million likes:

Then, there is one that stands out from the same page that has clearly been boosted internationally:

But how do we know that this page is built on deceitful, illegitimate likes? Let’s look at the page of a Christian organization with a similar following: Desiring God, which has 963,000 likes, just eight thousand more.

Here are the engagements on a couple of their posts that do not appear to be outliers on their page:

This page and the page of the Christian leader above have almost the same number of likes. One was built legitimately through organic engagement and boosting to a variety of audiences, and one was built by purchasing international likes through Facebook ads. It is clear which is which because Desiring God’s engagement on its content more accurately reflects the number of total likes it has on its page. The anonymized Christian leader page has much lower engagement than it should have for the nearly one million page likes it has.

In Closing

Like I said at the top of this blog post: my goal here is not to drag people through the mud. That’s why I spent a significant amount of time in Photoshop doing all I could to conceal the identities of the people whose content I have cited. I think these people should be called out, but I have not taken the time to call them out personally, so I am not going to call them out here.

The purpose of this blog post is to make you, Christian social media users, aware of the shady social media strategies of too many of our Christian leaders. I come across these deceitful practices so often it makes my heart hurt. This week, I decided that I wanted to equip as many of you as possible to be aware of when you are being deceived.

I should note, too, that boosting or advertising internationally on Facebook is not inherently bad. Please do not hear me saying that. Plenty of people building ministries online to reach international audiences do this all the time. When it becomes especially problematic is when international boosting or advertising is taking place to artificially inflate influence by pages who have no intention of using social media as a platform to do international missions. Some of the anonymous pages cited in this post may not even have malicious, deceitful motives. I can’t know for sure on some of the examples. But, regardless, the influence presented is a misrepresentation, regardless of intent.

My advice to you is simply to take what you have learned and let it lead you to discern who you should and should not listen to online. Too many Christian leaders’ lust for power and influence have led them to knowingly purchase artificial influence to take advantage of you, the people they actually hope to influence.

Don’t stand for it.

Chris Martin

Chris Martin is the Co-Creator and Chief Content Officer at LifeWay Social as well as a Content Strategist at LifeWay. He and his wife Susie live outside Nashville, TN.