Meet the data engineer who created an automated Instagram account to earn free meals. 

By Caitlin Petreycik
Updated March 21, 2019
Credit: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

A Manhattan-based data scientist just pulled off the ultimate Instagram grift—he created a 100 percent automated account that hits up New York City restaurants for free meals in exchange for posts (#spon, #ad, #robotspon). The Instagram in question, @beautiful.newyorkcity, currently has over 600 posts and nearly 29,000 followers, which is pretty impressive for an influencer who doesn't actually exist.

Its creator, Chris Buetti, was inspired by aggregators like @fuckjerry, the controversial content-stealing Instagram account. “@FuckJerry is where I got the idea,” he told Buzzfeed News. “He never needs to show his face, he just posts memes he finds on the internet; mostly he just steals them...I was thinking, this guy never needs to touch [by hand] his account ever.”

Buetti took that hands-off approach to the extreme, writing a super sophisticated program (which he documents in a lengthy Medium post) that automates everything from gaining an audience (the key is to mass-follow Instagrammers in the hopes they'll follow back) to maintaining engagement (the bot auto-likes followers' posts throughout the day). There's a whole process for choosing which cityscapes and artfully arranged food shots to repost—basically, the program weeds out promotional content by scanning content for phrases like "link in bio" and "buy now," and chooses pics based on factors like ratio of likes to followers.

The data scientist also wrote a script that automatically adds hashtags and generic photo captions like "Who can name this spot?" and "You haven't lived until you've died in New York." Once @beautiful.newyorkcity reached 20,000 followers, the bot began to slide into restaurants' DMs, offering to promote them on the account in exchange for “a free experience, small gift card, discount, or coupon.”

And, it worked—Buetti told Buzzfeed News that he's earned about 10 free or discounted meals so far. When the website contacted one restaurant who gave Buetti a $25 gift card, and described how the account worked, the owner said, "I guess in the end we were satisfied because it’s still an ad posted and showing us to their followers.”