Update: A few hours after I published this story, Instagram took action against @Gateway, deactivating the account. A spokesperson for Instagram told me it was for violating the company’s policies against spam.
On September 25, adult film star Lana Rhoades posted a video to her 16 million followers on Instagram, telling them to enter a free sweepstakes where they could win a PS5, Xbox, or Macbook Pro. How? Simple: Like the post, and then go to @Gateway, Rhoades’ partner in the promotion, and follow all 100 Instagram accounts that they follow.
The post may have stood out to Rhoades’ fans as different from her usual content. The adult film star uses Instagram mostly for modeling swimsuits and underwear, so what could be the harm? Follow some random accounts on Instagram and maybe win a great prize — and, besides, if you have any questions, you could read the Gateway terms and conditions, linked on the company’s founder’s profile, as she said in her post.
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What her followers may not have been aware of is that one of the accounts contest entrants had to follow in order to enter the contest is a prominent Covid-19 conspiracy monger; that Rhoades was allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars to make and post that video; that Gateway Giveaways allegedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars for putting it all together; and, oh, that there were no public terms and conditions to be found. This kind of promotion is just another in a long line of “growth-hacking” schemes frowned on and sometimes shut down by Instagram, or its parent company Facebook. For now, it’s making someone very rich, sometimes at the expense of exposing tens of thousands to Covid-19 misinformation.
Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain
Carter Jamison is a teenage Instagram moneymaker. He does it by giving stuff away, and he has become a millionaire in the process, he says. Since 2014, when he was in the 6th grade, Jamison has given away iPhones, PS5s, Xboxes, Louis Vuitton bags, and more to dozens of people through his business Gateway Giveaways.
“The way I stumbled into this space was I saw a giveaway on a FaZe Clan member’s account, and I was super intrigued and started contacting random celeb’s emails. I locked in a giveaway with Katie Bell for my first one without knowing at all what I was doing. I made a bit of profit and was hooked with the adrenaline/fun that I had running it,” Jamison explained to me in Instagram DMs.
Working with artists, adult film stars, and celebrities such as Mia Khalifa, Chief Keef, Lil Yachty, Bobby Shmurda, Lil Durk, Trippie Redd, and Lana Rhoades, Jamison has compiled an impressive network of some of the internet’s most influential accounts.
Also in his network are people willing to pay to be just as popular on Instagram, including Dr. Russell Surasky, a board-certified neurologist. Over the past 15 months, Dr. Surasky has found a little fame on his own, appearing on far-right television networks OANN and Newsmax discussing what he thinks about masks and vaccines. His beliefs can be summed up by this clip below from Newsmax (also found on his Instagram) where he claims that “masks are harmful to children due to moisture build up,” among other debunked assertions (masks are not harmful to children, according to the Mayo Clinic, and numerous other trustworthy sources).
Dr. Surasky was a customer of Jamison’s during his September 2021 giveaway, where he paid Jamison a few thousand dollars to grow his Instagram account, which helped him expand his reach on his verified Instagram account. For Jamison’s part of the deal, a nice profit, he told me.
Here’s how to enter once of Jamison’s giveaways, as Jamison explained it to me. Go to the Gateway Instagram account and you, too, could be a winner. All you have to do is follow all 100 of the accounts that Gateway follows, which you can see by tapping on “following” on their account. Instagram makes it easy — 100 taps later, you’re almost entered into a contest to win one of Gateway’s prizes. The final step? Couldn’t be easier: Like the original post promoting the giveaway by a celebrity Jamison has hired to help publicize the event.
For Jamison’s latest giveaway in September, he hired Rhoades. He pays all his celebrity partners between $50,000 and $75,000, he told me. For this fee, they post a video of themselves surrounded by the prizes up for grabs, telling their followers to enter. Clients like Dr. Surasky paid $1,500 to $3,000 to be on the Gateway following list, Jamison told me — and for that money, they can net up to 30,000 new followers at an average cost of less than $0.10 per follower, very little in the ever-evolving growth-hacking game.
Gateway started following Dr. Surasky’s account on September 27 and Rhoades had made her post promoting the contest two days earlier. Dr. Surasky’s audience skyrocketed once Gateway followed him, increasing his audience to 148,600 from 124,000, a gain of nearly 25,000 new followers. Dr. Surasky paid between $1,500-$3,000 for this service, according to Jamison, along with 99 other accounts looking for a follower boost, like @cryptoisland, an NFT project, @joshurad, a tattoo artist, and @joshsnow, the founder of Snow, a teeth whitening brand with 2.1 million followers that was featured on Ellen this year.
Many of the new followers come from the accounts of celebrities who Jamison pays to promote each contest. At no point in the process is it publicly disclosed that Gateway’s clients are paying for the sweepstakes or that Rhoades is paid.
The business is very profitable, according to some back-of-napkin math: Jamison takes in $150,000 to $300,000 per contest (that is, 100 clients, multiplied by his fees), and with his only costs being a maximum of $75,000 for celebrity promotion and perhaps $20,000 for the prizes.
“Right now, Gateway is profiting around $75,000 to $150,000 monthly,” he told me. And Jamison knows how to spend it. On his personal Instagram account, you can see pictures of him skydiving, riding in helicopters and posing with celebrities in front of expensive cars.
He runs one or two contests a month, he said, perhaps during his lunch break or study hall periods. He’s still a senior in high school.
Growing your account on Instagram becomes harder each year. The social network has nearly one billion users — all potential followers — but there are an ever-increasing number of influencers, brands and small businesses vying for their attention. And every day a fresh batch of young people join who dream of growing their followings and becoming influencers themselves. Facebook calls these people “needy users,” according to recently leaked company documents. Instagram is constantly tweaking its algorithms so the level of “needy” clout-chasing and integrated advertising regular users see is kept to an acceptable level.
“As more people join Instagram, competition for reach is always changing, which means that users will see fluctuations in their reach stats,” says Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri in a video posted on the platform in June 2021.
On the @creators account, Mosseri and other Instagram employees post videos about how creators can gain more followers and how the Instagram algorithm works. Companies like Instagram give everyone a roadmap to be popular. For those who manage to crack the code, the rewards can be huge.
Insider recently interviewed 18 different Instagram micro-influencers and found that Instagram users with followings as low as 2,300 followers can make $50 for three posts, and larger accounts with as many as 1.2 million followers can charge thousands for one Instagram Reel (the company’s short-form video product, widely thought of as a ripoff of Tik Tok). The overall influencer marketing economy hit $13 billion in ad spend and is forecasted to keep growing rapidly, meaning more opportunity for more people who want to monetize their following.
Not everyone takes the virtuous path. Pre-2017, a popular growth-hacking technique on Instagram was to follow the maximum number of accounts (7,500) you were allowed, and then unfollow the accounts that didn’t follow you back. Rinse and repeat. Instagram caught on to this and limited the amount of people you can unfollow to about 100 per day, making this tactic more difficult to scale.
Jamison’s giveaway scheme at Gateway is one of the latest shortcuts. Unlike past growth-hacking tactics, each follower Gateway’s customers gain is a real person who jumped through several hoops to become a follower and, often, was told to do so by a big account they admire.
When fans of Rhoades, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story, took her advice and followed Gateway’s 100 customers, including Dr. Surasky, the doctor who spreads Covid-19 misinformation and also declined to comment for this story, for a chance to win, they may not have known exactly what they were signing up for.
Out of the approximately 25,000 people who followed all 100 accounts, three won a new PS5, three took home the newest Xbox, and two contestants were awarded a Macbook Pro, announced on @Gateway’s Instagram story on September 30. The details of how winners are chosen were not made public; anyone looking to know what process was used to pick winners and who picked them couldn’t find that information anywhere online.
In Rhoades’ Instagram post caption detailing the contest’s rules, Rhoades told her followers that they could learn about Gateway’s contest rules on its terms and conditions page linked in Jamison’s personal account’s bio, but that link just goes to a web page promoting Jamison himself and, as of this writing and during the contest eligibility period, did not include any contest terms and conditions, according to the WayBack Machine, a website that allows you to look at prior versions of other websites.
Jamison told me that while the contest was running, that link did go to a terms and conditions page that is under construction (untrue, according to the WayBack Machine). Those terms and conditions, however, were not for Gateway Giveaway, but instead were for a company called Echelon. Upon asking for clarification, Jamison said he had partnered with Echelon in the past but, “I don’t work with Echelon anymore after finding out about their scams. On my new site being developed, I have my lawyers writing new TOS [terms of service] as well since FTC [Federal Trade Commission] guidelines change so much.”
Federal and state regulations for sweepstakes are fairly well-outlined. A quick Google search reveals that to run its promotions legally, Gateway needs to share certain information, including how winners are chosen and any partnerships or endorsements. Nowhere does Jamison share that his clients are paying him for their participation.
With nowhere to go for answers, one wonders if a sweepstakes entrant can unfollow the new accounts right away, or will continuing to follow them mean a better chance to win? Do your chances actually increase if you engage with these accounts or share the contest post to your story, which Rhoades implores her followers to do in her caption? How is that tracked on a large scale if thousands of people enter?
Yet, at the end of all this, is the world not more connected? An ambitious marketer gets a new audience for their message, a celebrity with a big following is able to capitalize on their fame, a few lucky people get a fun prize, and, for his part in making this little party come together, Jamison has become very wealthy, very quickly. What could go wrong?
Following the September Gateway promotion, Dr. Surasky, posted to his Instagram story a “big no thank you!” to the shingles vaccine, a slide saying he thinks the risks outweigh the benefits of the Covid-19 vaccine and, that those who resist mask and vaccine mandates are like the brave gentiles who hid Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust.
When I asked Instagram for a quote about the rules and regulations surrounding Covid-19 and vaccine misinformation for this piece, a Policy Communications Manager at Instagram. said on a phone call with me, “We do not allow claims regarding vaccines or Covid that are specifically used to cause harm. We also take action on widely debunked claims as it relates to vaccines. For example: ‘vaccines cause autism’ – that kind of sentiment is not allowed across Facebook or Instagram. We take a bunch of measures to inform people when they come across content that is about Covid, but we also make that content harder to find for people.” After this story was released, Instagram shut down Jamison’s account due to violating their spam policies, but it looks like Dr. Surasky’s account is here to stay.
When I asked Jamison if he vetted the accounts of his clients, he said that he vets every account. When I showed him Dr. Surasky’s account, he claimed that the account came through a vendor; he wouldn’t share the name. When pressed, he then claimed that he did vet the account, adding, “If their political views don’t align with mine I don’t mind or take it personal, however if they are doing something illegal or non ethical then I won’t allow it!” Would he do business with Dr. Surasky again? “Yes! If he wanted more growth, I would allow it.” When asked for his own opinions on Covid-19 and vaccines, Jamison said that he does not believe in vaccines and he feels that “it’s all ironic and doesn’t make sense. It’s so stupid.”