Data scientist created an Instagram influencer bot to score free restaurant food

Photo: Alexander Spatari (Getty Images)

The culture of Instagram influencers can already seem artificial. People who aren’t necessarily famous amass tens of thousands of social-media followers and translate that into free products, sponsorships, and endorsements, across fields as diverse as beauty, food, fashion, even pet products. A New York City-based data engineer has now proved just how “fake” that world can be: He programmed an Instagram influencer bot, then leveraged its following into free meals from some of the city’s best restaurants.

The engineer, Chris Buetti, details his process in a lengthy post on Medium. It gets a bit technical—there’s mention of Python, coding, metadata, A.I., etc.—but for the more food-minded among us, the takeaway is that restaurants are more than happy to offer free food to an Instagram “influencer” they’ve never even met. The entire account and its processes are, as Buetti describes, completely automated: “Since its inception, I haven’t even really logged into the account. I spend zero time on it.”

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Instead, the anonymous NYC-focused account—which Buetti redacts in screenshots, ostensibly to keep scoring free food—automatically scraped photos from other New York-centric Instagram accounts (legally, by the way) and added captions and hashtags that were indistinguishable from what a human would write. Through artificial intelligent, 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. We’re fairly confident it’s this account:

What’s surprising here is not just the automation, which is impressive, but how Buetti was then able to leverage the account into actual, free food from restaurants. After his account bulked up its follower count, he wrote code so that the account would automatically find Manhattan restaurants on Instagram, and 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, as his Gmail inbox filled up with offers.

“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 writes. He even screenshots 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.”

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How do you get in on this? Well, you can either become a social-media influencer thanks in part to your semi-famous parents’ illegal bribes to get you into college, or you can try emailing Chris Buetti to learn his methods. His email is at the bottom of the Medium post.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.