From the ill-fated Fyre Festival to Theranos to Juicero, the new book by Gabrielle Bluestone, “Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Took Over the Internet — and Why We’re Following,” looks at the allure of some modern debacles.
While reporting on (Billy) McFarland’s scams (I had realized) that the real meat wasn’t a recap of his crimes and how he did them but, rather, why they worked so well — and why so many people he had already duped once fell for it again just a few months later.
Why were his victims, once burned, willing to take another chance on an offer that seemed way too good to be true? Why did experienced investors repeatedly give millions of dollars to a college dropout with no real product or sales record? Why did serious professionals, with decades in their industries, who knew or should have known that the original festival wasn’t going to happen, keep working toward its inevitable implosion?
Why did thousands of the most image-conscious, web-savvy youths in America eagerly throw their money at an illusion? And why, long after it became clear something was seriously wrong with the event, did hundreds of those young people still jump on hastily chartered last-minute flights to a foreign country?
Suddenly I was seeing patterns everywhere, like the John Nash of influencer marketing and with red yarn tying together Billy McFarland and Donald Trump.
Con artists have presumably been around since prehistoric times. But there was something new here at play, a tech-assisted accelerant, that enabled McFarland to subvert our hyperconnected society, which, given all these technological advancements, should have spotlighted him from miles away.
But by filtering his scam through a network of trusted influencers on social media, which caught the attention of legacy news outlets more than happy to cover things superficially from an entertainment angle, McFarland had been able to wash the stench of fraud from his scheme, resulting in a pure hype cycle that bypassed any need for proof of concept. And with a millennial army willing to follow these influential generals from the screen to the literal ends of the earth, McFarland was able to convince a series of experienced investors to keep funding the scam — at least until it all fell apart in real time, where else, but on social media.
McFarland may, for a time, have been the most famous, but he is not, by far, the only con artist feasting on hype in the digital age.
It’s tempting to chalk all this up to the naivete of young people. But it’s not just millennials and Gen Z’ers falling for it — it’s their parents too. This impetus to dive blindly into a shallow pool of unverified claims spans generational, socioeconomic and educational levels, from the 28-year-old North Carolina man who shot up a pizza parlour because he falsely believed it was a front for child sex trafficking, all the way up to 97-year-old Henry Kissinger, who accepted a seat on the board of directors of Theranos, one of the biggest scam companies that ever existed.
At least he just lost his dignity — the Walton family (which owns Walmart), Rupert Murdoch, and the DeVos family — all of them presumably sophisticated investors and certainly long-term professional rich people — reportedly lost a combined $375 million (U.S.) in Theranos.
It’s the same mindset that brought us Juicero, the $400 juicing machine that managed to raise 120 million real dollars before a journalist figured out the machine only worked almost as well as squeezing the bags of fruit pulp with your own two hands. It’s the millions of people tuning into Newsmax, a television channel that appears to exist solely to cater to people who feel Fox News committed a crime punishable by death for calling the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.
In retrospect, it’s little wonder McFarland thought he could sell a half-brained idea and use someone else’s money to try to make it come true. Wishful thinking wrapped up into an aggressive sales pitch and pounded into the public psyche via pop culture and social media until enough people give up resisting the idea is just good business practice.
The result is a curious conundrum of this connected age. We have more tools available to uncover bad actors than ever before, yet we persist in playing along with them. We keep arguing online with bots and ordering products on Amazon from companies that don’t exist (this happens far more often than you’d think) simply because they were favourably reviewed by someone we don’t know.
An entirely new currency that doesn’t actually exist is thriving in the multibillion-dollar crypto exchange, enabling companies like Burger King Russia and Kodak to goose their stock prices just by announcing plans for their own branded version of fake digital money. We’re taking vitamins we don’t need and swallowing supplements we can’t pronounce and putting jade eggs in our vaginas because we were told to do so by freelance writers whose only health qualifications are working for a site that happens to be owned by the beautiful and famous movie star Gwyneth Paltrow.
Is any of it all that different from the thousands of kids who entrusted their physical safety to a 25-year-old scammer simply because the model Bella Hadid accepted north of $300,000 to wink at a camera?
Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” dropped in 1988. Thirty-some years later, it would seem we’ve learned nothing. In fact, for just $250, you can now pay Flavor Flav to make a video saying literally anything you want on the celebrity booking site Cameo.
Whether it’s the value of a company, the authenticity of a person we’ve never met, or the efficacy of face masks during an airborne pandemic, at some point along the road, we as a society tacitly agreed to start trusting our emotions and feelings over verifiable facts — all without ever realizing just how much our social media use is manipulating those judgments in the first place.
Scholars call this a post-truth world, a concept that arguably originated with Friedrich Nietzsche but which took on particular urgency after it was named Oxford’s 2016 word of the year. The phrase is most commonly invoked to refer to Trump’s election and Brexit, but I see it playing out everywhere.
We’ve become so confused by the constant barrage of what former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway famously deemed “alternative facts,” that we’re desperate for someone to tell us what’s right, and there’s plenty of evidence for us to gather after the fact, once we’ve already decided the conclusion …
“Influencer marketing is only going to grow,” noted marketer Dan Wheeldon in the summary of (a) 2016 U.K. Audi Instagram campaign, the one that loaned free cars to influencers in exchange for unlabelled advertisements. “Ad blockers continue to rise, as do savvy audiences who would rather see something inspiring from within their circle than to ingest poorly executed adverts from outside.”
Wheeldon was right, of course, but he missed a bigger issue. Forget the old New Yorker joke that no one on the internet has to know you’re a dog. These days on the internet, no one has to know you’re a fraud.
With just a few of the right assets — some combination of a well-curated Instagram or Twitter account with a decent following, a professional website, a celebrity spokesperson, and maybe a sprinkling of those Russian-bot likes — it’s not hard to get internet users, bloggers and even the mainstream press to accept an Instagram Story as fact, whether it’s a Russian scammer pretending to be an heiress in New York society, a self-described entrepreneur promising to sell you the secrets to success in exchange for three easy payments, or a wannabe influencer paying her college friend to write viral captions underneath her heavily edited photographs in order to trick strangers into thinking her life looks cool.
Still, it’s a low-stakes game for most brands and the influencers they rely on, exchanging samples, gifts and direct deposits for tags, links and favourable reviews.
For most of the companies involved, the worst that can happen is that an influencer will fail to advertise the goods on their page. Because … these brands aren’t necessarily looking for clicks — they’re looking for credibility. And it doesn’t take much for an influencer to make a product look aspirational.
Rationally, of course, the public knows that much of what we’re seeing on social media is fake. But emotionally, the game influencers and celebrities play — let’s call it something like the Allegory of the Fave — by selectively revealing brief, staged glimpses into their personal lives, well, it just hits differently than a banner ad.