Social media influencers are selling their audiences a "lifestyle," and in many cases, that audience is tweens and teens.
The premise of “Fake Famous,” a documentary released earlier this year on HBO Max, is to commit a minor fraud on Instagram that exposes the massive fraud underlying the entire Instagram universe.
Director and tech reporter Nick Bilton creates a social experiment by selecting three young adults in Los Angeles, who have small followings on the social media app, and attempting to make them into influencers.
The plan to achieve this is by faking fame -- buying "bots" as followers, paying for "likes" and creating the illusion of a luxurious life through elaborate, staged photo shoots.
In the process of executing this goal, the film reveals the deep and wide scope of fraudulence on the popular site. It’s not just individuals but multinational corporations and Big Tech itself that are all in on the deceit. The reason is pretty obvious from the start -- there’s megabucks in selling a "lifestyle” (aka the "stuff” needed to get that lifestyle), and none of the major players has any incentive to stop the gravy train.
In an interview with Variety, Bilton commented on one of the most surprising details I learned from the film.
“The most astounding number to me was that 140 million people on Instagram had over 100,000 followers and 40 million have over 1 million followers. So you’re going to tell me that 140 million people are famous?” he said.
I was also amazed by how easy it was for him to game the system. By creating a "fake famous" influencer, he was able to change her actual real life. The illusion of Instagram fame opened doors to jobs, free trips and products, and an entire new revenue stream for her.
I immediately wanted to share the doc with all the smart, savvy digital natives I know and hear their take. Maybe Bilton and I were kind of horrified by the extent of the scam because in Insta-years, we are dinosaurs. There are an estimated 320 million global Instagram users aged between 18 and 24 years, and approximately 72% of teens use Instagram, according to Omnicore statistics.
Sure enough, my Gen Z social media experts -- one of whom is a former intern -- said they weren’t the least bit surprised by what they saw. They both got on Instagram in middle school and have watched the app evolve over the years.
Manal Haroon, 22, recently graduated with a business degree and will be starting her MBA in Chicago this fall. She shut down her Instagram account once she realized how much time she wasted mindlessly scrolling and became more aware about data selling and breaches. She remembers the pressure to curate and edit her posts to make it look like she was always living her best life.
The effects of constant comparison to a fake and deceptive standard are corrosive to young people’s mental health. But she can understand the appeal of wanting to become an influencer in this economy.
“People want to find the easiest way to get money, and job security is so scarce for our generation,” she said. She wants to pursue marketing and business in her own career, but she wants to work for a company that values integrity and sells products people truly need.
“I never wanted to be Instagram famous,” she explained. “I want to be successful and have influence, but not that kind of influence. I never want to be a person who goes somewhere just to take pictures. I want to take pictures for actual memories.”
It was reassuring to hear this, even if it’s a minority opinion.
The trick for parents is getting even young children to realize that the apps where they socialize and construct their identities are built on a foundation of deception. The platforms that allow them a place to connect and express themselves only work by manipulating our emotions to make a sliver of people very rich. Most young people are sophisticated enough to hold both concepts.
Instagram fame may be fake, but that cash is very real.