It’s hard to imagine a world without the ever-present Social Media Influencer, a mythical figure whose popularity is fueled, at least in part, by the nagging question of just where the hell they came from and why the hell they’re influencing, uh, anyone. And perhaps no one has managed to weaponize this enigmatic “influence” as directly as 2017’s Fyre Festival and its beleaguered bro of a founder, Billy McFarland.
On Monday, Hulu dropped their 96-minute documentary, Fyre Fraud, just four days before Netflix’s well-publicized Fyre is scheduled to hit the small screen. Both films document the infamous Fyre Festival, an “immersive music festival” which led to hundreds of attendees, some of whom reportedly paid upwards of $5,000 a ticket, getting trapped on an ill-equipped island in the Bahamas, with little food, scarce water and FEMA tents as shelter. We all know the story, because almost all of us tweeted about it.
Just as the Fyre Festival was born on social media, where celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid appeared, siren-like, in publicity videos, beckoning for their followers to romp on an island “once owned by Pablo Escobar” and swim with pigs (yes, really), so it died there, too.
Why We’re Still Living in the Year of the Scam
The event’s viral moment could reasonably be described as an exercise in mass-schadenfreude: Twitter cackled while Fyre attendees publicly suffered in real time, posting photos of their VIP meals (single slices of cheese on pieces of bread) and their VIP villas (in many cases, tents with plastic-wrapped mattresses), begging to be rescued. Truly, Fyre Fest emerged as a perfect Venn diagram of people who are both hilariously naive and privileged enough to be guiltlessly mocked.
After all, how could these people really have believed they were going to an all-inclusive resort-slash-music festival filled with Instagram stars and endless booze? If a trip like that is really on your vision board, a) get a different vision board but b) shouldn’t you at least know something like that will cost you a lot more than $5,000? And at the very least, shouldn’t the marketing of Blink-192 and Ja Rule as “top-tier performers” in that, the year of 2017, been a red-flag?
But at the same time Fyre is only only the first of a seemingly endless series of scams that captured the public imagination in what became known as the summer of grift. While the non-festival went down in 2017, 2018 summer scam-hounds were treated to McFarland’s arraignment and sentencing; that “German Heiress,” the Tinder Grifter, LA’s “literary grifter” and a funny-if-it-weren’t-real parade of grifts from the White House, to name a few.
Why Fraud Never Goes Out of Fashion
So why, really, do all these scammer stories have such enduring appeal? As The New Yorker writer and noted chronicler of millennial malaise Jia Tolentino points out, both in the documentary and on Twitter, millennials’ understanding of the world is “shaped by extreme precarity.” Watching rich people get owned online, then, may prove to be an important outlet for a generation that’s contending with the consequences of rising income inequality.
The rise of social media, and the subsequent monetizing of dubious identities on the part of influencers, also means we’re surrounded by li’l scams every day, from white influencers pretending to be black, to “hustling” entrepreneurs who pretend their success isn’t tied (or at least linked) to the money they already have. Of course, only focusing on the extreme cases also lets ourselves off the hook. After all, what’s more performative than social media, where all of us are trying to convince strangers online that we’re cooler, better, and more carefree than we are in real life? Some of us make actual money from that; is it really fair to blame them for simply being better at a game we’re all playing?
So maybe we read, tweet, and mainline content about scams because they’re a language we understand, maybe we read them because they exonerate the tiny scams we perpetuate on these bad websites each and every time we log on. The story ends, the Ringer reports, with McFarland carrying out one final, brazen act of dishonesty, reportedly lying to the respective documentarians to start a bidding war over which film he would appear in. McFarland may indeed be a “compulsive liar,” but, asked to share your viral shame with the world on your way to prison, far more of us than would care to admit probably would have done the same.