In the menagerie of jobs that have sprung up around tech, social media influencer sounds like one of the best. Rather than grinding out hours writing code or engineering software solutions, influencers can earn a healthy income by simply capitalizing on new technologies and attendant audiences. Because influencers are among the best ambassadors for the technology—consider how a well-curated Instagram account entices others to join the service—they’re often seen, and treated, as the ideal user, reaping the rewards of that privileged status.
But at its core, the influencer economy is driven by a manipulation intrinsic to the intersection of social media, celebrity, and commerce: #ad. Those three characters give up the game, revealing that the endorsement is not born of sincere appreciation or excitement but the transaction of paid services. Obviously, companies have been utilizing paid spokespeople since the advent of broadcasting. However, the personal algorithms created by our individualized social media experiences makes the influencer ad experience feel less like a sales pitch than a gentle suggestion from a trusted friend.
However, influencer culture has recently come under scrutiny. The pair of Fyre Festival documentaries released on Hulu and Netflix spotlighted the role that social media played in boosting publicity for the disastrous 2017 music festival. And a number of other news stories have emerged about influencers who have faked their businesses, or even their entire personality.
The Roof is on Fyre
The two Fyre Festival documentaries released last month—Netflix’s “Fyre” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud”—provide a vivid glimpse into the dark underbelly of the influencer economy. Billed by Fyre CEO Billy McFarland and his partner Ja Rule as a “luxury music festival” in the Bahamas, Fyre Festival fell apart immediately when concertgoers arrived to find their beachfront villas were actually FEMA Tents, performers had all canceled, and the gourmet food they were promised turned out to be soggy cheese sandwiches.
— Trevor DeHaas (@trev4president) April 28, 2017
The internet feasted on schadenfreude throughout the ordeal and McFarland was eventually sentenced to six years in Federal prison. Still, after watching the “Fyre” docs, you come away with the impression that, for all of his failings as a concert producer, McFarland possessed a savvy understanding of influencer culture.
Under the Influence
What McFarland understood is that, in the crowded world of multi-day music festivals, the event’s image was far more important than the musical lineup. In December 2016, Fyre Festival released a trailer for the festival, along with a coordinated social media rollout, featuring models, celebrities and influencers like Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, Alessandra Ambrosio, and others. Although she did not appear in the video, Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 to promote the festival on Instagram.
In the Netflix documentary, McFarland called the rollout “the best coordinated social influencer campaign ever,” boasting that over 400 of the biggest influencers in the world were tapped for the simultaneous unveiling. These influencers were identified and paid through Jerry Media, itself a marketing agency spun off from the popular Instagram account @fuckjerry.
Despite not mentioning the name of a single musical performer, the video was a huge success: 95 percent of tickets were sold for the event within 48 hours, at a cost of $500 to $1000 for GA, $12,000 for VIP packages. Less than two years later, McFarland would be sitting behind bars for fraud.
Blood and Lies
Billy McFarland wasn’t the first person to leverage internet influence to criminal ends. Consider the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the blood-testing company she founded in 2003 at the age of 19. Apparently spawned from Holmes’ fear of needles, Theranos “ran blood tests using proprietary technology that required only a finger pinprick and a small amount of blood,” according to Business Insider. Because the test would be able to detect serious medical conditions like cancer, it was considered game-changing biotech and Holmes was eager to protect her trade secrets.
By 2015, when Theranos was valued at $9 billion, Holmes had laid claim to the title of the world’s “youngest female self-made billionaire.” Crafting a persona largely modeled on Steve Jobs, Holmes was seen and treated like an inspiring entrepreneur; when she wasn’t speaking on panels with people like Bill Clinton, she was recruiting prominent investors like Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos.
But in 2016, Holmes’ multi-billion dollar “empire” crumbled. Following a series of investigations by John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal, Theranos was discovered to have been relying on questionable lab results that other scientists could not verify. Put simply, Theranos’ blood testing method never met the necessary scientific threshold to go to market.
Last June, Holmes and former Theranos COO and president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were indicted on Federal wire charges. Despite last ditch efforts to raise money, Theranos announced in September that it was shutting down. Some have likened the company’s closure to that of Enron; Holmes would know, her father worked for the disgraced energy conglomerate.
Influence for Affluence
While both McFarland and Holmes used influence and endorsements to obscure their phony businesses, others have used it to create a phony identity. For several years, Anna Delvey lived the high life of a New York socialite, bouncing from party to party and eating at the city’s finest restaurants, all while documenting her adventures on social media. The heiress to a German fortune, Delvey took meetings with seasoned developers and monied investors as she plotted the opening of a gallery under the banner of the Anna Delvey Foundation for the arts.
The foundation turned out to be as real as Derek Zoolander’s “Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good” because Delvey turned out to be as real as Derek Zoolander. After a series of bounced checks and failed wire transfers to hotels, creditors, and friends—including a Vanity Fair photographer who put $62,000 on her own credit card—investigators discovered that Anna Delvey was actually Anna Sorokin. While Sorokin was from Germany (her family moved there from Russia when she was 16), she was not heir to a great fortune. Instead, her skill was creating the perception of wealth, even in its absence.
In October 2017, New York prosecutors charged the 27-year-old with six counts of grand larceny. Labeled a flight risk, she remains behind bars at Rikers Island. According to New York Magazine, Sorokin believes the notorious prison, “is not that bad at all actually.”
“People seem to think it’s horrible, but I see it as like, this sociological experiment,” Sorokin said.
Are You Not Entertained?
What all three of these cases seem to have in common is a supreme lack of self-awareness. At various points in all three stories, the perpetrators had the opportunity to reckon with the truth and face its consequences. But rather than seek redemption, their response was essentially, “Hold my beer.”
That’s because they all recognized an essential but unfortunate truth of the influencer economy: Attention is our most valuable commodity. Fyre Festival is now one of history’s most infamous concerts, despite never taking place. Elizabeth Holmes will be played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in an upcoming biopic about her fall from grace. And TV veteran Shonda Rhimes optioned the aforementioned New York Magazine story about Anna Delvey for a Netflix series.
Even when they’re behind bars, we can’t escape the impact of the influencer. And that, as much as anything, speaks to their power.