Fyre Festival and the Power of Influencers

By L. Murphy

Everyone has believed something that turned out to be fake, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. What if the Tooth Fairy was a college dropout fraudster named Billy and Santa Claus was Ja Rule? What if instead of elves, there were Instagram influencers? That would look like Fyre Festival.

Fyre Festival was supposed to be an “immersive music festival” on a private island in the Bahamas. Influencers such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Hailey Baldwin promoted it on social media. Its mastermind was a 25-year-old “entrepreneur” named Billy McFarland, who additionally had around four hundred influencers advertise the event. 

Fyre Festival promised guests VIP packages that included gourmet dining, fabulous villas and a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. But when they arrived, it was a disaster. Little planning had actually gone into the event. There was nowhere for guests to stay besides half-built tents and nothing to eat besides cheese sandwiches. Artists who were supposed to perform pulled out and guests ended up stranded on the island. After the first night, the Fyre Festival staff left, leaving the guests in an array of confusion.

The creators knew beforehand that the event was not going to live up to its word. But even as the event-planning began to crumble behind the scenes, the promises of a luxurious party remained on social media. The guests at Fyre Festival had no reason to believe that they weren’t buying tickets to a real event. After all, countless other festivals have been advertised on social media without a problem.

McFarland and his colleagues carried out his deception mainly through social media with the help of celebrity influence. Promotional videos of the supermodels running along the beach with taglines like “two transformative weekends” were not representative of what actually happened. But they had famous names and faces attached, lending the project credibility.

The nature of social media explains why it’s so easy to mislead people on it. People highlight what’s going right in their lives, but never what’s going wrong. That makes the world’s perception of us, or of an event or group, different from reality. When someone uses that alternate reality for monetary gain or heightened power… that’s where things get tricky. Not only are they giving a false projection to the world, they are profiting off of actual lies. This is what happened with Fyre Festival. 

The aggressive social media advertising and subsequent disaster of Fyre Festival was not a standalone occurrence. Tanacon, a 2018 convention created by Youtuber Tana Mongeau, was also a catastrophe that didn’t follow through with what was advertised. She promoted an alternative “VidCon,” where admission would be free (though most, if not all, people who attended bought a VIP pass for $65 because the free tickets sold out in two minutes). Famous YouTubers such as Shane Dawson and Miranda Sings were supposed to appear and drew a lot of interest. On the day of the event, however, there was no food, drinks, or anything the VIP package had promised. The venue was overcrowded and the event was shut down within hours. The strong negative reaction on social media tarnished Tana Mongeau’s brand.

Like Fyre Festival, Tanacon relied on fierce social media advertising from celebrities and influencers. Shane Dawson created a mini YouTube series that told the story of Tanacon, where he said, “I wasn’t a part of anything, except for the fact that I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll come.’ Which now, in retrospect, is the worst decision I think I’ve ever made.” This seems to be a trend with influencers. They advertise products and events that they aren’t actually very informed about, and sometimes it blows back on them. But much of the public believes them.

These days, being famous gives you the guise of expertise. People listen to the Kardashians over doctors, and people buy tickets for an event as soon as they see their favorite supermodel post about it on Instagram. It puts a lot of power in the hands of people who aren’t necessarily qualified to use it. 

As Fyre Festival was falling apart, many on social media did not have sympathy for the guests who got conned. Some people tweeted things like, “I’ve always dreamed of building elaborate deathtraps that attract the 1%, but #fyrefestival actually went and did it, kudos.” It’s easy to remove yourself from the situation and call the people who went “suckers.” But the reality is, all social media users are susceptible to believing false advertising. They are bombarded by it constantly, so much so that sometimes, they don’t even notice it— especially when it comes from trusted influencers.