Fyre Festival, a music festival marketed to the social-media savvy as a utopic Coachella on a private island, has become synonymous with the pitfalls of influencer culture and the internet as a whole. The festival itself was a fraud, creating a social media frenzy as privileged millennials, who had paid thousands of dollars for an elite music festival, found themselves stranded in the Bahamas at what looked to be a disaster site populated by “FEMA tents” with no musical acts. The general public was fascinated as doomsday tweets and Instagram posts provided real-time updates to what was perceived as a millennial meltdown.This month, two documentaries, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, have been released, detailing the inner workings of the ultimate social media fraud.
The documentaries provide an inside look at the elaborate scheme constructed by William McFarland, a 26 year-old entrepreneur with a questionable history, and his business partner, well-known-enough rapper Ja Rule. Largely similar, the documentaries feature a lot of talking-heads and endless vlogger footage (because the next best thing to live-vlogging an elite festival is live-vlogging a disaster) all in attempts to piece together how such a large-scale scam could happen. Both documentaries delve into the multi-layered marketing campaign that took advantage of Internet culture to manipulate and defraud a generation unfamiliar to Enron, Bernie Madoff and Mary Kay pyramid schemes. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, which features an exclusive interview with McFarland, paints the picture of a conman attempting to sell entrance to the new hierarchies of elitism- access to celebrities and exclusive events, using custom language and cues catered to his own generation.
Today, marketing professionals continue to puzzle over what “makes the millennial tick.” McFarland, on the other hand, went straight to the source, hiring Jerry Media, a media consultancy born from a blue-checked meme account on Instagram, to create a social media maelstrom that would result in 95 percent of event tickets being sold in 48 hours. The campaign employed an extensive network of Instagram influencers, artists and models, utilizing their existing brand to legitimize the event. Aspects of the campaign included a Kendall Jenner Instagram endorsement, a post that allegedly cost $250,000, and flying out models Bella Hadid and Chanel Iman to the Bahamas for promotional videos of the women partying in paradise. The exorbitant amounts of money spent on promotion, apparently McFarland’s expertise, creates a vicious cycle of debt and fundraising, often at the cost of event-goers, that results in the disastrous festival and the eventual jailing of McFarland for wire fraud.
Shrouded in the narrative of millennial consumer culture is an underlying commentary on responsibility and the use of social media as a distancing mechanism. Due to the temporality of social media, the effects seem largely inconsequential – privileged, mostly white millennials getting temporarily screwed over by their own shallow aspirations. However, Netflix’s Fyre depicts the fallout as much more serious for the local population of “Fyre Island”, the island Great Exuma, where local Bahamian laborers remain unpaid a year later. Fyre tells the story of resort owner and caterer named Mary Rolle, who lost $50,000 of her own money attempting to house and feed stranded festival goers. These consequences show that within these temporal, virtual platforms, the networks that are built can have problematic impacts when translated into the physical world where definitions of responsibility and trust differ.
In 2004, a pre-Instagram era, IBM researchers emphasized the importance of building a web of trust into future internet platforms, recommending the implementation of a feature that would allow users to express trust or distrust for one another thus creating “a web of relationships and trusts to help a user assess the likely quality of information before acting on it”. This was in the context of e-commerce, how to decide whether your e-bay seller was a phony or not. Today, on Instagram, this web of trust is propagated not by dislikes or negative reviews, but rather follower count and the amount of likes, statistics that are directly correlated with social capital. This creates an environment rife with opportunity for the Instagram influencer.
In Fyre Fraud, New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, defines the role of a social media influencer as one who has amassed a following for “performing an attractive life.” Through the establishment of a brand and the mass familiarization of one’s “personal” life, these influencers gain a platform through which they can direct their followers’ consumption habits. This disrupts the aforementioned web of trust, however, because it undermines the strong and weak ties that the network is made up of and how information is passed through them. Strong ties have typically been exemplified as friends with high emotional reciprocity and more interaction and weak ties as acquaintances with low emotional reciprocity and less interaction.
These definitions become blurrier when it comes to influencers who gain popularity through their ability to interact en masse and emotionally appeal to their followers, creating a simulation of a strong tie. While followers will take the recommendations of influencers, attributing the same credibility almost as a real-life friend, it is a one way street as these influencers take zero accountability for the content they produce and the information they spread. McFarland and his marketing team at Jerry Media were able to weaponize this simulated strong tie for their benefit, convincing hundreds of people that because so many familiar internet personas were associated with a social event it was inevitable that they find a way to participate in the event as well.
In Fyre Fraud, McFarland notes the possibility the internet presented to him, highlighting the sense of lawlessness to the technology. Both Fyre Fraud and Fyre present the unsettling ease with which McFarland was able to construct the fake festival, revealing the shaky foundation of Internet ethics that allowed for it. It can be argued that the attendees of Fyre Festival were easy targets for this sort of scam, people who spent a lot of time, money and effort on social media platforms and who placed credibility with names like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. However, as shown by the documentaries, the effects of scams like this are not localized to those who directly participated, but can have long-lasting ripple effects across our society. As the ability to discern between real and fake becomes increasingly necessary, it is important to consider how social media platforms, influencers and us, the people who watched gleefully from social media sidelines as Fyre Fest attendees struggled, can better hold each other accountable.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.