Conning Culture: Hype in the Social Media Age

Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet―and Why We’re Following

The story of the Fyre Festival, which saw Instagram influencers tricked into promoting a music festival on a private Bahamian island with luxury accommodations, gourmet dining and a picturesque setting, only to turn out to be a few rain-soaked tents with cheese sandwiches in a gravel pit with no celebrities, hasn’t interested me. I couldn’t believe there were multiple documentaries and podcasts dedicated to the saga of rich millennials fooled into wasting money on an Instagrammable event intended to boost their social cache.

But it turns out there’s more to the story, mainly to what it says about the current social culture, including our social media obsession, and our tendency to put what we want to believe over instincts that something’s wrong or too good to be true. Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet―and Why We’re Following, by Vice journalist and executive producer of the Netflix Fyre documentary Gabrielle Bluestone, promised a wider take in the context of other recent internet grifters and our social media-primed susceptibility to the scams. This topic is irresistible to me, and the book is a must-read if you feel similarly.

The experts call this a post-truth world, a concept that arguably originated with Friedrich Nietzsche but took on particular urgency after it was named Oxford’s 2016 word of the year. It’s most commonly invoked to refer to Trump’s election and Brexit, but I see it playing out everywhere, whether it’s the influencers we take style cues from, the experts we turn to for health advice, or the consumer reviews we consult before making purchases. We believe what feels right, and there’s plenty of evidence for us to gather once we’ve already decided the conclusion.

The narrative is built around that now-infamous Fyre festival and it’s the most examined story here, beginning with its perpetrator, Billy McFarland, who has quite a history of defrauding investors of various millennial-targeted ventures. Building on McFarland’s place in this specific moment of obsession over wanting to be seen and a fixation on controlling our perceptions and online personas, Bluestone looks at other influencers and the “rampant consumerism framed as individuality” – a good summary of social media’s swerve towards marketing in recent years.

Bluestone loops in stories of other web-savvy entrepreneurs who have been less than forthcoming about their business problems and missteps at the expense of their investors or followers, like WeWork’s Adam Neumann and Instagram fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein. It can be depressing, as I always find it to be learning about these people and this superficial culture and how much money it involves, but Bluestone mostly focuses on emphasizing the ridiculousness of it all. Or maybe I read it that way since I already came to it thinking that. There’s not a lot of actionable information, but at least it’s a warning of the dangers of succumbing to glossy, carefully filtered messaging and marketing, and influencer envy.

It could’ve been tightened, because the research and some intriguing key concepts are there but it doesn’t feel streamlined or sufficiently organized. The analysis is strong when it happens, but there’s not quite enough of it, instead focusing on the actual stories of grifts and grifters. Entertaining as they are, and maybe there’s some schadenfreude element, it still feels a bit anticlimactic ultimately. At times the narrative can be confusing, although this tends to be the case when fraud and subjugation are involved. At one point she writes “None of it made any sense,” which basically summed up the entire Fyre story to me.

I didn’t like that the majority of quotes were used in their entirety without editing for clarity, i.e., very colloquial speech, which made wading through them for the meaning a test of patience (as a fellow millennial I know how hard it is to break oneself from reliance on “like” when speaking, but it should’ve been cleaned up for writing like this).

Elsewhere some quotes seem strange presented without sufficient commentary. This gave me pause: Calvin Wells, “a venture capitalist who tried to whistleblow on the Fyre Festival,” uses an example of how the money and fame from pulling off something like Fyre was motivational, saying that you could be “working a quiet job at the Sprint store making $60,000 a year plus health care” or aim for mega-weath like McFarland. Is this a Lucille Bluth “It’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost? $10?” moment? (RIP Jessica Walter!) Does a Sprint store job really pay $60K plus healthcare? I had many moments of feeling like I lived in a different reality than the figures involved here, and I think that’s probably a very good thing.

She closes by tying the idea of false narratives into one of the biggest conspiracy-theory dramas to play out on social media recently, the coronavirus and the Trump administration’s handling of it. She quotes infectious disease expert Dr. William Haseltine: “Belief trumps facts every time.” That seems to be the lesson here unless we actively work to disallow it.

(One last thing on Trump: apparently he once marketed “a urine-test kit which promised to diagnose vitamin deficiencies.” Why did we always hear about the steaks and the vodka and the airline-gone-bust and not this?! Did anyone else know about this? It’s the first I’m hearing. Why is he so weird and why does he love everything that’s garbage?)

It’s a worthwhile read for some warning about the dangers of trusting too deeply in what we see on social media. This tends to be a punchline about the baby boomer generation, but it’s applicable to millennials and whatever the generation after is too. Bluestone deftly shows how we all can be suckered by hype and artifice, and how con artists and scammers adapt their tricks and tools to the changing social media structures. It’s page-turning and sometimes jaw-dropping, a good look at why we’ve become primed by internet culture to accept what we want to believe over the obvious truth. (Would make a good read-along with Sarah Frier’s No Filter, about Instagram and the culture it’s built.)

How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet―and Why We’re Following
by Gabrielle Bluestone
published April 6, 2021 by Hanover Square Press

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.


24 thoughts on “Conning Culture: Hype in the Social Media Age

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    1. It is an unfortunate trait. Especially when coupled with targeted hype and the idea that everyone else is having more fun with more expensive stuff in more exotic locales than you, which I guess must be very upsetting for certain types!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t watched it as I really couldn’t get interested in this story at all but I might now. I don’t mind their getting scammed, I think I’m bothered by knowing more about this shallow moneyed influencer culture existence in the first place.


    1. Glad I could make you laugh, and especially a relief to be able to laugh about him now, right?!! I hadn’t heard it either, we could’ve been joking about that for years now, how did THAT story get buried amidst the steaks and the vodka? I’m really curious.

      It would be better to skim, but maybe only if you’re a really good and efficient skimmer, because I did find parts of it a bit confusing…you know how when it’s business-related there’s a lot about money and investors and this or that transaction, and that might make it a bit tough if you’re just skimming. I’d say if you’re really interested in the topic of how hype is becoming such a factor thanks to social media and influencer culture and thus is the next area ripe for scamming, it’s absolutely worth reading. If you’re only marginally interested it might be best to skip it.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Sounds interesting. I’m amazed at what people will try to pull off and what people will fall for and social media has become a Pandora’s Box. I actually stopped looking at my Instagram regularly because it started making me feel bad about my life when looking at the fantastic lives of others. And then I stopped to think about and realized it was people selling fantasies trying to influence me whether to sell products, buy into their staged existence, or just to evoke jealousy.

    My niece really got into doing TikTok and made her brother skits with her and he started his own account — she’s got 55,000 followers and to her annoyance, he’s pulled in 250,000 — and he doesn’t care at all.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s a typical social media side effect. I’ve read so much about how badly it’s damaging our self perception, satisfaction with our lives, etc. It’s just unbelievably dangerous. I grew up with the internet era already starting but obviously still so different from the ubiquity of today. It was bad enough as is, I can’t even imagine what it’s like for younger generations.

      With TikTok, on one hand I think it’s kind of a good thing that it’s encouraging that kind of creativity in making skits and the like! On the other it does all seem to be for the purpose of popularity, and just omg…a quarter of a million followers!! I can’t even imagine. But also I wouldn’t want that many people seeing a window into my life, even if it’s a highly curated one. I can’t even imagine what their reality is like!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yeah, I grew up pre-internet and can’t imagine it either. The niece and nephew went to a TikToK influencer convention in Florida that was geared to help market yourself and your product (they were I think 17 and 16 at the time). People were coming up and telling my niece they recognized her. She did make some friends at the event and one is now her roommate in college. But my niece is definitely a product of the times — you rarely get a spontaneous photo of her — she’s always perfectly put together and everything is posed.

        The alarming thing is how you can make one misstep these days and it’s all over the internet and can ruin you.

        I’m not even sure what their follower count is now — I could only watch so many lipsynch and dance routines though the nephew did put a couple of funny ones out.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I was talking about that with a friend – does this generation even go through an awkward phase anymore?? Because I also wore makeup in my early teens and I still didn’t look aaaaaaanything like them. And it’s not just on social media, it’s the ones I see in public…must be the abundance of hair and makeup tutorials or something, but geez. They are just so meticulously put together at all times.

        And an influencer convention…Wow. It just seems surreal to me. I’m glad they’re able to use it for networking and the like, maybe that’s just the way these things will go in future. I don’t get all the dance routines and lip syncs or why it’s so entertaining to other kids…I mean I don’t even have tiktok and I only watch the ones crossposted to Instagram that the algorithm thinks I’ll like and luckily it’s all cat videos now. The super short sound bite format definitely fits for this generation, who must have the shortest attention spans known to man. (I know, I’m really revealing my inner cranky old grandma right now.)

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Yeah, the marketing stuff I write for the younger crowd is now definitely distilled down. I read an interesting news story a few years ago about a small study that analyzed brain scans of young people reading. And the scans showed that the digital generation had a harder time developing a deep focus when reading a book or block of text — that area of the brain just had a hard time engaging. The researchers theorized it came from always being overstimulated since childhood where multiple things are always happening on screen, messages coming in, alerts, etc. My family grew up reading books — even my dad who only had a basic education read pulp novels — but my niece and nephew just don’t seem to read books that I can tell and their intelligent kids. I worry about their breadth of knowledge.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. That’s such a bummer to hear, that there’s a scientific confirmation behind it. I felt like I’d noticed it, coming along with this switch to everything bite-size, quick and super edited, but yikes. I worry about what the outcome of it will be too. I know plenty of people just aren’t readers and never were – neither of my parents read books at all, I’m jealous you had a family like that! – but there does seem to be an odd shift nowadays where there’s so much content available online to “read” that books aren’t the go-to for many kids they once were. Sad sigh.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Great review! This sounds absolutely fascinating for the stories alone, even if the overall analysis could have been stronger. No Filter is on my TBR as well, so I’ll have to make a note to pick this one up alongside. I did watch the Netflix documentary of the Fyre Festival fiasco a while back and found it pretty interesting, as far as learning how far the organizers were willing to go, how much they were willing to lie about, and how poorly they handled everything when the lies couldn’t be hidden anymore, so I think I would like that aspect of this book as well as learning about other incidents. This internet era we’re in has been quite an interesting ride.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I haven’t watched the Netflix doc, I just couldn’t stir up any interest in the Fyre thing until I read this, and she made me realize all the points you mention- that’s what was so interesting about it, not that rich people got tricked out of some money but just the extremity behind what they were willing to do and how much they were able to actually get away with. It’s kind of mesmerizingly fascinating! Good to know you got so much from it, I’ll have to watch it.

      Liked by 1 person

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