HBO doc shows how it's easy to make "Fake Famous" influencers, whose job is to "make you feel bad"

Filmmaker Nick Bilton appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the harmful effects of the false social media presence

By D. Watkins
February 4, 2021 11:05PM (UTC)
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Chris Bailey, Dominique Druckman, Wylie Heiner in front of The Pink Wall in L.A. during the filming of HBO's "Fake Famous." (HBO)

Have you ever logged onto Instagram and felt like you were doing something wrong with your life? You went to college, landed in your career, worked extremely hard and handled all of your responsibilities, yet your life sucks in comparison to everybody you follow. Strangers and even some of your friends from high school effortlessly post images of the kind of lifestyle you dream about every day. They live on vacation, live in the gym, eat the best foods from the best restaurants, wear the best clothes and do it all without doing boring things like maintaining a career. Scrolling through their lavish lifestyles can lead you into thinking that your life sucks.

However, you are completely wrong. Many of those extravagant realties, those followers, those likes and that lifestyle is completely fake, a total hoax. That's what I learned from talking to Nick Bilton this week on "Salon Talks" about new HBO documentary "Fake Famous."

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The veteran journalist and first-time director captures the rise of fake, curated realties online and influencer culture in the film. In "Fake Famous," Bilton conducts a social experiment where he selects three aspiring, wannabe celebrities with small social media followings and attempts to transform them into big time Instagram influencers with the same kind of fake vacations, fake followers and fake likes you see when you scroll­­. The end result of this experiment is mind-blowing and even pushed Bilton's own skeptical views of social media's detrimental effects to a new level.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Bilton here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below for more on the internet's effect on culture and society today, why the classification of fame today is largely BS, and how he is raising his kids in a world where fake realities reign supreme.    

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The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A lot of our viewers and readers might not know what an influencer actually is. Break it down for us.

An influencer is someone who technically, I guess, influences. Anyone could be an influencer because they influence other people, but the way the term has now been kind of hijacked is it's someone who has a large following online who influences other people to engage with the brands and the products that that person does. For example, you could be a book influencer who reads lots of books and you recommend what book people should read. You could be a travel influencer where you go on fancy vacations and you tell everyone, "Oh, you should come on this fancy vacation too." Kim Kardashian, of course, is like the number one influencer who tells people which products to buy for the beauty regimens and how to live a wonderful life that she apparently lives.

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What has happened in recent years with the proliferation of Instagram and all these things, is that you now have thousands of different kinds of influencers on social media. And everyone thinks that they live this grand amazing life because they get all these free things.

The timing of this documentary is so important because you have people out there who say, "Well, oh, it doesn't matter. It's just social media. It's just all fun. The impact isn't really real because it's the internet." But then we see what happened in D.C. with the insurrection and all.

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What's really interesting is I think it's very difficult to discern if the internet is by and large, good or bad in one direction or another. You have the Black Lives Matter movement and then you have the MAGA movement. And you have the rise of giving people voices who've never had voices before. Holding people accountable and corporations, and men who have abused women for years, and you have all that.

And then at the same time, you have this culture where, which we talk about in the film, where 87% of kids today in America want to be famous influencers, right? That is what they want to be more than any other occupation on earth. And as we show in the film, that whole thing is bulls**t. It's just made up. It's not real. And you have millions and millions of people that are pretending that they are famous and lying about how many followers they have, and the influence they have, and so on. And the effect it's having on culture and society I think is pretty bad.

A lot of people who watch this film are going to fall in love with the subjects that you chose. Without giving too much away, are any of the subjects who participated in your social experiment still addicted to fame?

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Just to give the viewers a little taste of how we got here, when we started the film we didn't really know who we were going to pick and how we were going to find people to turn into fake famous influencers. We did a casting call and we decide, okay, let's just ask the very simple question of, "Do you want to be famous?" And that was literally what we said in the casting call. If you want to be famous, show up to the spot at this time. We had 5,000 people respond instantly.

We didn't put it on social media or anything, we just sent out a casting call. We narrowed that down to 250 people and then we had to get it down to two. We ended up getting it down to three people because we really liked three of the people in there. And then the goal was, okay, let's take these three people who have a thousand followers or so each, and see if we can buy them fake bots, and fake likes, and fake followers, and fake comments, and doing fake photo shoots, see if we can make them appear famous and have their lives changed.

And so I'm not going to give away what happens to all of them, but one of them, it works out. She becomes a famous influencer. She's got 350,000 followers now and she gets tons of free stuff. And I think that as you see in the film, I think she kind of struggles with whether she actually wants to be one or not. And if it wasn't for the way the film ends, I think she probably would've still gone down that route.

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Do you think the idea of being an influencer as a career choice is something that young people should aspire toward or do you think they should totally stay away from it?

This was a realization I had. When we first started this, I actually didn't like influencer culture. I thought it was vapid and I thought maybe it didn't really offer the world much. But I figured, okay, well maybe they're recommending some stuff that's actually beneficial to the people. And by the end of it, what I had the realization of, I fell into it.

I was on social media because of the film, monitoring our subjects and engaging with them and their followers and things like that to make sure it appeared that they were being fake famous. There were moments where I was looking at these influencers and I was like, "Oh my God, they have this great life. I don't have that great life." And then I realized, wait a second, it's working on me and I'm fully aware of it. And what I realized was the whole point of influencing is to make you feel bad. It is to make you say, you don't get to live the life I live. You don't get to go on these fancy vacations. You don't get to get these free products, you have to go work for them.

The whole concept from the bottom to the top is to make you feel bad and for you to want to buy these things that this influence gets for free so that you can live the life that they live. But in reality, as we show in the film, their life is really just a lie. It's not real. They don't have the real engagement. They don't love the vacations they go on. They don't like the products they use. They're kind of prisoners that they have created in their own world because they have quote unquote, a lot of followers.

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How dangerous has the mass subscribing to fake realities had in the last few years? When I hear, for instance, that the suicide rates went up, I stop and think. What kind of impacts do you think it's having on society as a whole?

We didn't expect the film to go down this route. We actually thought it was going to be kind of like a funny commentary and for one of the people that we followed, it did end up going down this route and we discussed this a little bit. But when you look at the rise of social media concurrently, as the numbers and the users have gone up and teens have started to use it, teen suicides have gone up, depression has gone up, all of these things. In some instances by 600%. It's insane. And teen bullying, there's all these things that have happened. Look, I am a grown man who was making a movie about this topic and I felt bad a couple of times thinking like these people have this great life. So if you're a teenager who doesn't know the difference, of course you're going to feel bad seeing this. And you're going to feel worse about yourself because this person has a better life than you. They drive a better car, they're skinnier, they have more money, they go to better parties, all these things.

I personally do not think that there is any aspect of influencer culture that makes society better. I just don't believe it. I think that 95% of it has a detrimental aspect on society. And I think the 5% that works are the smaller, authentic people who are not just taking pictures of their body on a beach, but are saying, "Oh, let me show you to cook this meal," or whatever it is. Something that is positive and makes you feel good because you've accomplished something. But most of it is half-naked people saying, "Look how amazing my life is." And really it's not.

A bunch of fluff. You did, however, mention the power social media can have when talking about justice. But then the flip side of that is how do we tell when it's real and when it's fake? Who's marching for a cause or trying to unite and organize for something positive? And who's organizing just so that they can put the beret on, and do a fist pump, and take the nice influencer picture for the protest?

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Well, that's what happened with Black Lives Matter, right? So we were in the middle of filming, COVID hit, we had to stop filming because we couldn't film because of COVID. We were in quarantine. A few months later, we can finally organize some shoots that we had to finish the film. And we were filming at the pink wall in Los Angeles, which is the famous opening of the film. It's the famous pink wall where people go to take a selfie because that pink wall photo on your Instagram feeds stands out. You get more likes, you get more followers of course. And incidentally, the pink wall has become the number one tourist attraction in LA, which is kind of mind-boggling within itself.

Crazy. Put a pink wall anywhere!

I know, anywhere. But people flock to it from all over the world. And finally the day we go back to shoot, we were out there shooting and we could see helicopters floating above. And then all of a sudden there's a boom and then the smoke in the air, black smoke. And we were a couple of blocks away from where the George Floyd protest had become chaotic. And they had set a police car on fire and the riot cops showed. It was just total pandemonium.

We were smack in the middle of that as we're filming. And what was so fascinating is you have people that are protesting, you have people that are looting, and then you have these random influencers that are taking selfies in the middle of all this. And we're watching this and it's like, what are they doing? It was totally mind-boggling to see. Everything has become a backdrop for a selfie for these influencers. And somebody joked around, I think it was Charles Blow from the New York Times, said it was like Coachella for influencers. That's not what it was supposed to be. And so I think what really says is that, before you had these different pods of movements, and now they've kind of all blended together in some respects and in the middle of that is if people using it as this backdrop.

I actually know a guy who identifies as a celebrity protester. It's a thing and he does get gifts. He gets gifts.

What kind of gifts?

Clothing, suitcases, sneakers, the typical stuff any other influencer would get sent. That is a whole different conversation, but that's kind of scary to me. What were your social media habits before this film? And did they change after you completed your researching in putting everything together?

That's a great question. I have struggled with social media for 12, 13 years since it has been around. I remember being at the New York Times when Twitter came about in 2006, so it's now 15 years, wow. And I was like a cheerleader. I was going around the newsroom, telling everyone to sign up. "It's going to change the world." And I got into a very public debate with George Packer from the New Yorker, where he said it was evil resurrected. And I said it was just an old guy who didn't know what he was talking about. I got into an argument with Bill Keller, who was then the New York Times editor-in-chief, which was kind of a bit of a crazy move for me to do that and where I essentially defended it. And I wrote the book on Twitter. And all through this, through that period, I saw the positives.

I saw the Iranian revolution, I saw people having a voice that didn't have it before. I just saw people influencing the news in a way that it should be whereas it wasn't just a bunch of old white guys in a room deciding what was going on the front page of the paper, everyone was having an impact. But then as with everything, it gets subverted, it gets taken advantage of. And the same thing with Instagram, and Facebook, and all of these platforms.

I've often struggled myself because A, I feel like the hundreds of hours I've spent on social media over the years, the thousands of hours. What do I have? I don't remember any of it. It's not like a book that I read that I can sit back and be like, Oh wow, that was an amazing book that I read and I still think about today. I think so much of it is just, it's just crap, honestly. It's just such a waste of time. And on Instagram, I think the majority of it is. At least on Twitter, you sometimes get news and information. On Instagram you're just looking at people, showing you how wonderful their life is and that's all it really is. It doesn't matter. I wrote one of the very first stories on Instagram because of covering that world and I got really into it, and then I quit using it. And then I started using it again for the film. And now once the film is done, I'm deleting it from my phone because it doesn't make me feel good, it really doesn't.

It's like a double-edged sword for me because I didn't get my first book deal until one of my essays went viral like crazy on Twitter and Facebook. So, part of me is like, it's so much BS, so much bad information, so much lies. I was telling somebody the other day that I've never heard so many people lie in one space until I downloaded Clubhouse. It's like a Pandora's box and you open it up and lies just spill out into the universe. There's so many billionaire CEOs, private jet plane owners in East Baltimore, I didn't know.

That's funny.

As a journalist, Twitter is a way for me to just spread my work to so many different people. And then part of me feels like, well, do I still need to do this because I have a readership?

I struggle with the same thing. I mean, it's difficult because it does reach people that way. But I guess the question is, do you have to be the one who's trying to reach them? Or if the work is great, will it find the audience anyway? And I don't know. I honestly don't know the answer and I struggle with the same thing. I put limits on my phone for how much I can use Twitter. As a journalist, I really don't have much of a choice but to use it. But I definitely try as hard as I possibly can to not engage with it. And as Twitter has become so much more vitriolic and just gross over the years and everyone's trying to take everyone down.

Yeah, it's not 2009, 2008 when Twitter was fun. It's a very dark place for regular engagement.

No matter what you say, it will be construed in the wrong way. Just doesn't matter what you say. So I'm much more like, "Here's a link, read this." That's it. Rather than, "Here's my funny joke today," which could make me lose my job because it could be construed incorrectly or something.

Do you feel like influencer culture will last?

That's a great question. When you look at the statistics on Instagram, there are 40 million people who have over 1 million followers. 40 million people with over a million followers. There are 140 million people who have over a hundred thousand followers. So you're going to tell me that 140 million people are famous? That's the population of Russia. It's impossible. It's just statistically impossible. If that was the case, people would be walking down the street . . . They would be unable to walk down the street. When you look at the numbers, and it's hard to kind of actually tell the exact numbers, but I've read a couple of things that say there are probably around three to 4,000 A/B list celebrities out there, real legit celebrities. So how can there be 4,000 celebrities in the real world and 140 million in the fake world?

So what I hope happens is that people start to realize, oh, this doesn't add up. And brands are going to have to do that, they're going to have to come to that realization because they're going to have to realize that they're not reaching the audience there. But in the film, brands keep giving our influencers free stuff and they're clearly not engaging with a real audience because I bought all the fake followers for our influencers, but then they keep giving them free stuff. And so my guess is that yes, there will be famous influencers, absolutely. But my hope is that there are a hell of a lot less of them. And the kids realize that, these 87% of kids that want to be one, that they realize that this isn't necessarily the dream they should be going after.

Speaking of kids, I have a one-year-old daughter. It was shocking to see in the film that there are so many kids who just want to be famous when they grew up. How did you plan on raising your family in this crazy social media world?

It's so funny, I have a three-year-old boy and a five-and-a-half-year-old boy. This is insane actually. This morning, the five-and-a-half-year-old said to me, "Can I get a cell phone?" And I was like, "What? No." And he said, "Well my friend has one." And I was like, "No, your friend doesn't." And it turned out his friend, this little girl, has a cell phone at five years old. And my mind was blown. I was like, why does this kid have a cell phone? And she FaceTimes people and texts emojis. Having two little kids and seeing how much of a sponge they are for everything, I think it's really important that you distill at this age, at three and five years old, the reality rather than waiting until they're 12.

My five-year-old now knows how to go to YouTube on the iPad and has figured that out. And I have to tell him this can be bad or this is not real. Or don't click on that because of this. And I feel like where we kind of messed up with the previous generation was we let them go on there. Baratunde Thurston is one of the folks that we've talked to in the film and he has this great line where he says, "We tell our kids not to smoke cigarettes, we make them get a driver's license to drive a car. But when it comes to social media, we've left them to the wolves." And I feel like the only way to stop that and to help them and to avoid the things that have happened with this generation is for the next one, to teach them at a really, really young age, what this is really all about.

We have a big job ahead of us. I can learn from you about this stuff all day, but please tell everyone where they can see the film and when it comes out?

Tuesday, February 2nd on HBO. And then it'll be on HBO Max, it's called "Fake Famous" and it's a pretty wild ride.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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