Tow Center

In the Fyre Festival documentaries, who is being scammed?

February 8, 2019
Photo: Adobe Stock

By now we all know the story: the 2017 Fyre Festival was pitched as a once-in-a-lifetime “immersive music festival experience” on a private island in the Bahamas previously owned by Pablo Escobar. Through social media marketing driven by digital influencers like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, guests were promised rides on private jets, stays in oceanside villas, headlining acts including Kanye West, world-class cuisine, and all-night partying among celebrities and models. What they got were delayed economy flights, packed yellow school buses, flooded FEMA relief tents, cheese sandwiches on plain bread, and an overall experience that was more Mad Max: Fury Road than The Great Gatsby.

It was catnip for trend-chasing journalists everywhere. Outlets that had previously printed Fyre’s promotional materials almost verbatim in the lead-up to the festival quickly moved to condemn it. Vogue had called it “a destination for both sound and mind;” by the end of event they were asking “To what extent should a celebrity or blogger be held responsible for what they personally endorse?” “Move over, Coachella,” quipped the Los Angeles Times in January; “looked like the set of ‘Outbreak’” read an April headline. Refinery29, which pronounced Twitter’s commentary on the “complete disaster” “hilarious,” had even given away tickets to it.  

The Fyre Fest brand lived and died on social media. The same platforms its organizers weaponized to create inescapable buzz among upwardly mobile millennials also led to its breathtaking demise: As soon as photos and videos from the festival started making their way to Twitter and Instagram (the tents, the sad cheese sandwiches, the defective Porta Potties), it became a viral schadenfreude sensation. And like all viral sensations, we are cursed to relive it over and over again until any traces of the joy it once brought are nothing but a distant memory.

ICYMI: “I cry in the office. I cry outside the office”: Diary of a laid-off reporter

To that end, last month Hulu and Netflix released competing documentaries (Fyre Fraud and Fyre, respectively) promising to walk us through exactly what led to that fateful weekend in April 2017. One simply doesn’t interrogate the structures that made the Fyre Fest disaster possible; the other, produced by the company that packaged and marketed Fyre in the first place, is an extension of the scam it claims to expose, a “journalistic” autopsy on its stakeholders’ own lucrative handiwork.

Both offer the same basic story: Fyre Fest was the brainchild of 27-year-old entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. Despite a history of failed ventures like the social network Spling and the elite millennial credit-card-cum-social-club Magnises (a “community for the socially and professionally adventurous”), McFarland had the gifts of a master salesman according to both films, winning over big-time investors like early Juice Press backer Carola Jain and the late, disgraced fracking billionaire Aubrey McClendon. Fyre Fest was a side project conceived in part to promote McFarland’s latest startup, a talent booking app called Fyre. To borrow Ja Rule’s phrasing, McFarland seemingly “hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked, [led] astray” everyone around him (investors, business partners, performers, attendees) at every turn to create an environment in which no one ever knew what was real and what was fabricated until, finally, it was too late. He is currently serving a six-year sentence in federal prison for fraud.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, is unique for its interview with McFarland himself, for which he was paid an undisclosed sum reportedly under $250,000, the number he used to attempt to bargain with Netflix.

ICYMI: A new group devoted to transparency is exposing secrets Wikileaks chose to keep

But Fyre Fraud has arguably bigger problems than the ethics of paying sources. It seems to think that words like “millennial,” “influencer,” and “scam” are intriguing enough on their own that repeating them in various combinations eventually adds up to a coherent thesis. The breathless voiceover in the opening scenes of the film seems meant to relate to young viewers: “There was music, private planes, beautiful women on an island with drugs. Man, that’s as sexy as it gets.” But is the narrator a quintessential millennial or just a dolt? Fyre guests are surely not the first status-obsessed consumers to be lured by celebrity spokespeople and the promise of exclusivity. The fact that they got “bamboozled” by an Instagram post and not a magazine ad is merely a symptom of the current media landscape.

Fraud purports to explore the “scammer” ecosystem that allowed the Fyre Festival con to go on as long as it did, but it doesn’t sufficiently do so. The filmmakers’ focus on McFarland obscures the structures enabling him at every turn. What’s more disturbing than a single evil mastermind tricking investors into pouring their resources into a project with no substance is the fact that this is what they are encouraged to do by design. In Silicon Valley terms, a (white, male) college dropout with two high-profile failures under his belt deserves to be given a chance to fail again. Premature advertisements and misleading presentations to funders are simply part of the hustle. Depending on who you ask, up to 75 percent of venture-backed startups fail. What percentage of these are “scams”? Is anyone at the top held accountable?

One could be forgiven for thinking that Billy McFarland’s biggest mistake was having too much faith in the process. His response to a camera crew the day of the disaster is telling: “We took a big jump and a big risk, and V1 has failed.” We may as well be watching a keynote at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Netflix’s far cannier Fyre seems to understand the fraudulent new media landscape much better, in part, no doubt, because the documentary itself is an expression of its most cynical excesses. Rather than relying on think-piece tropes to place Fyre Fest in a broader cultural context, it offers a straightforward insider’s look at the months leading up to the event, using its unique access to archival footage taken in the moment — something Fyre Fraud does not have. Talking heads theorizing about the millennial psyche are replaced with McFarland’s employees and business partners recounting detailed horror stories of his lies and incompetence. Maryann Rolle, a Bahamian restaurant owner who spent $50,000 of her own savings to feed guests, fights back tears as she reveals that she still has not been paid.

READ: Boosting local news with data journalism and automation

Yet much like Fyre Fest itself, Fyre has structural problems that cannot be overcome by compelling storytelling.

Elliot Tebele launched the Instagram meme account FuckJerry in April 2011, six years before the first Fyre Fest guests arrived in the Bahamas. With a following that now hovers over 14 million, FuckJerry has achieved the viral meme account dream: It has become an ad agency. Jerry Media, as it is now known, was the mastermind behind the marketing campaign that propelled Fyre Fest into a buzz machine, convincing celebrities and influencers in its network to promote the event to their millions of followers. It also ran the festival’s Instagram account, remaining steadfast in its promotion efforts as things spiraled out of control behind the scenes and deleting brand-damaging comments as the situation worsened. A year later, along with Vice Media, it executive produced Fyre.  

For years, Tebele’s entire business was re-posting images, memes, and jokes created by other internet users, including professional and aspiring comedians, artists, and writers. Until recently, most of that content was posted without source credit or attribution (screenshots of tweets often had the name of their author cropped out). More damningly, FuckJerry has used such content to create ads for brands such as MTV and Burger King, reportedly making up to $30,000 per post. When original content creators attempt to claim ownership over their jokes or ask for them to be taken down, FuckJerry responds by ignoring, blocking, or mocking them. (When comedy video artist Vic Berger asked FuckJerry chief content officer and Fyre producer James Ryan Ohliger to at least give him credit for his own video, Ohliger replied, “Shut up.”) Undoubtedly, this proved to be valuable experience for navigating criticism from guests on the Fyre Festival account.

Jerry Media’s various attempts to leverage its cultural relevance read like rejected Saturday Night Live sketches. In 2016, the team reportedly pitched a late night comedy show to MTV hosted by an anthropomorphic soda cup. Just last week, they sought out a partnership with the non-profit Need to Impeach, proposing a stunt in which the Instagram Egg would crack to reveal the phrase “Impeach Trump.” Fyre Fest may have been the most promising project they have ever been a part of.

Much like McFarland, Tebele and his team had endless business opportunities and glowing press coverage at every turn. A Nightline segment that begins with the falsehood “making memes is what Elliot Tebele does for a living” bears a striking resemblance to a clip featured in both Fyre Fest films of McFarland giving a tour of Magnises HQ. Looking bored in the swanky Jerry Media offices as his seemingly all-male staff skateboards around him, Tebele explains his process: “I like to post things that people wouldn’t normally say out loud. Or like, you read it and it’s super strangely relatable.” Since Fyre Fest, FuckJerry has won a Shorty Award (an award given by public relations company Sawhorse Media to “the best content creators and producers on social media”) for “Best Meme/Parody Account.” A New Yorker piece from only a few months ago describes FuckJerry as being “to memes what the ‘Tonight Show’ is to standup comedians.” In the same piece, Tebele describes being approached by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to “talk online marketing.”

When it comes to scamming, Billy McFarland walked so FuckJerry could run. While McFarland crashed and burned after Fyre Fest, the Jerry Media team not only skirted any accountability for its role orchestrating the disaster, but managed to get Netflix money for presenting the behind-the-scenes story to the world. As a viewer, I found myself perversely entertained by being constantly lied to, like watching a reality show that I know is scripted.

Despite the success of the film, Jerry Media’s role in Fyre Fest has led to a delayed reckoning between FuckJerry and the comedians, artists, and writers it ripped off. Vulture writer Megh Wright recently started a social media campaign encouraging people to unfollow FuckJerry, appropriately hashtagged #FuckFuckJerry. Over the last week, FuckJerry’s following has decreased modestly from 41.3 to 41 million, aided by celebrity endorsements of the campaign from people like Amy Schumer and John Mulaney. Though the controversy prompted Tebele to release a new “content policy” vowing to ask content creators for permission before using their work in the future, he has not addressed whether they will get a cut of the payment when their jokes are used as advertisements for Burger King. Meanwhile, other Jerry Media accounts such as @beigecardigan (run by Tebele’s wife) continue to post recycled content without attribution.

As with everything, there is already a backlash to the backlash. The argument in favor of FuckJerry’s antics is that everything on the Internet is technically fair game. As NME’s Jordan Bassett writes, “Once it’s out there, nobody really owes you anything.” After all, aren’t memes meant to be shared? Isn’t monetizing other people’s original content the very business model of sites like BuzzFeed, and of social media platforms themselves?

Well, yes. Much like McFarland, Tebele and the Jerry Media crew are products of the systems that enabled their success.

But perhaps it is still prudent to fight back against the most cynical and dishonest players propped up by those systems. At the very least, shouldn’t we draw the line at trusting them to give us a journalistically sound account of their most disastrous failures?

For the lucky few who still have not seen either film, my advice is to go with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud. Personally speaking, I would rather read a think piece than sponsored content.

ICYMI: Meet the journalism student who found out she won a Pulitzer in class

George Civeris is a research fellow at the Tow Center. Follow him on Twitter @georgeciveris.