How to 'fake' your way to fame: New HBO documentary exposes the truth about influencers

Fake Famous, an HBO documentary that aired Tuesday night, took a deep dive into the world of influencers, and their obsession with fame, as journalist and first-time director Nick Bilton conducted a social experiment to find out if he could turn three unknown people, with nearly no followings, into famous influencers using a few social media tricks.

First, Bilton held a casting call for the experiment's participants. Chosen were aspiring actress Dominique Druckman, fashion designer Chris Bailey and real estate assistant Wylie Heiner. Bilton then purchased fake followers and bots to like and comment on all three participants' Instagram profiles. Next, the content.

Bilton set up completely fake photoshoots for the participants, a ploy that apparently many influencers use. "We're simply doing what so many other influencers do. We're faking it," said Bilton.

One of the documentary's experts, social media manager Hana Hussein stated, "So much of it is so contrived and fake. I've worked with influencers for projects where, you know, you select them off of their Instagram, and their images, and then you ask them to come in and do a shoot or an interview, and they will refuse to take photos, because they highly edit their own images and they won't be comfortable with whatever we shoot."

"People fake private gym trainings so that, later, they can go and get a free training at a private gym. These fake photos quickly become a currency that you can use to get free real experiences, products, and sponsorships," explained Bilton.

"They fake all-expense-paid camping trips so that later, they can get a free all-expense-paid camping trip. They fake hikes in the redwoods so that they can try and get free hiking gear and sponsorships. They fake free upgrades to first class or trips on private jets, and all you really need to do that is a $12 toilet seat," shared Bilton as he held up a toilet seat over a scenic background on the television to make it look like Druckman was flying 35,000 feet in the air.

During one scene, Bailey learned that there is a fake private jet set that can be rented out for $50 an hour, for influencers to take pictures pretending like they are on a private luxury flight. The kicker — it is completely booked around the clock.

While each participant had very different experiences during this social experiment (both Bailey and Heiner ultimately decided the experiment wasn't for them), Druckman thrived and, within a few months, had well over 100K followers — most of which were bots, but some were actually real.

"We had assumed that we would have to reach out to places and brands in order to get these free experiences. But instead they started to find her," said Bilton.

Bilton also shared, "It got to a point where Dom could simply tag a brand in a photo and they'd be the ones reaching out, asking her to take their products for free."

Meanwhile, Druckman's newfound IG fame led to a career boost. Druckman shared, "I've been getting so many more auditions and callbacks. My agent, he's like, 'Yeah, your Instagram has, like, blown up, and that's definitely helped you get into the doors of, like, a lot of casting offices.'"

It was on an all-expense paid trip for VIP influencers, where Druckman realized just how fake influencer marketing is, as she shared, "A lot of the girls are like, 'I don't even know if I can use these photos.' I'm like, 'These are incredible photos. What are you talking about?'"

Five months into the experiment, Bilton purchased even more bots for Druckman, and took her following up to 250,000 followers. Soon after, Druckman was given the opportunity to experience the "hallmark of influencer fame: a free all-expense-paid vacation, which includes a free hotel suite for Dom and a friend, a $1,000 shopping spree, bottle service at a club, dinner at a five-star restaurant, and spa treatment. What does Dom have to do for all this? Just post the whole experience on Instagram, tag the hotels and spa, and make sure that her hundreds of thousands of followers see it." Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

"We've been copying these influencers by faking it just like them, and throughout this whole process, as we peeled back layer after layer of what really happens behind the scenes, I kept wondering if any of it was real, if anything these influencers did was actually authentic," said Bilton.

While Bilton continued to dig deeper to find out if anything influencers did was actually authentic, ultimately, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, when reports surfaced of influencers using the protests to stage photo opportunities that, to him, solidified his answer.

Bilton stated, "We instantly went into quarantine as a global pandemic started to kill hundreds of thousands of people. And yet what was so strange was, when you scrolled through Instagram, all those influencers we were trying to emulate, they were still posting photos of themselves as if everything was perfectly normal. They were posting pictures of themselves on the beach, even though the beaches were closed."

"It's not just about the fake followers and the fake photos and the fake fame that's so troubling here. At the end of the day, they don't make you feel better about yourself. The entire concept of influencing is to make you feel worse. It's to say, 'Look at this lavish life I live, look at these amazing vacations I go on and these wonderful products I use.' Even if, in reality, it's not that wonderful."

Druckman concluded, "Seeing what all of these girls do, like, behind the scenes and then what they put on their feed and how the world perceives them is just so sad, but I think I'm in that boat, too, 'cause people think I'm an influencer and definitely treat me differently once they see how many followers I have. People think so differently of you."

Fake Famous aired February 2 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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