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The Real Villain of Fyre Festival

Two new documentaries take on Billy McFarland and his disastrous music festival. But who's to blame, really?


“Honestly I can’t believe this documentary—there’s two of ‘em.” Against the strains of “Build Me Up Buttercup,” this is how the Hulu documentary Fyre Fraud draws to a close. The disbelieving individual in question is Oren Aks of Jerry Media, the marketing firm that promoted Fyre Festival, the stupidest disaster in the annals of millennial hubris. He’s right; there are. Hulu dropped its documentary about the ill-fated festival on Monday, gazumping a Netflix documentary on the same subject slated for release on January 18. Having seen both, the winner of the contest is clear: It’s Hulu, thanks to its exclusive interviews with Billy McFarland, the dodgy entrepreneur who oversaw the whole fiasco. It also does a better job pointing out the secret villain of this story all along: the subtle menace of social media marketing.

The background is this: McFarland, who first rose to notoriety as the proprietor of Magnises, the credit card–meets–social club startup, dreamed up a celebrities-for-rent app called Fyre. The idea was that regular people could pay famous people to hang out with them. Ja Rule was on board as a partner, and the app was valued highly. McFarland and Ja Rule then tried to promote the app through a luxury music festival in the Bahamas in the spring of 2017. Due to horrendously poor organization and a cash flow problem that escalated into wire fraud, the event was a catastrophe.

High-paying customers were met with sodden mattresses in FEMA tents, rather than the opulent villas they were promised. There was zero entertainment, when performances by Blink-182 and others had been advertised. Pictures of sad cheese sandwiches in styrofoam containers soon spread across the internet, delighting those who had been wise enough not to be taken in by dreams of a “yacht brunch party” on the island of Great Exuma.

The victims in the fraud weren’t the wealthy consumers, really, but the local workers who were promised a lucrative, recurring annual event. As one caterer put it in Netflix’s Fyre, “They had every living soul on the island of Exuma who could lift a towel, working.” McFarland wrung out this island for all it was worth, then never cut the checks.

If you are here simply to know which documentary you ought to watch, then you should opt for Hulu’s Fyre Fraud because of those new interviews with McFarland. Seeing him squirm without escape is too good of an opportunity to miss. But there are other differences between the two movies. Fyre does a better job of speaking to residents of Great Exuma, while Fyre Fraud’s talking heads are better at illuminating the cultural context. Fyre shoots its talking heads straight on, à la Wild, Wild Country, which looks modern. Fyre Fraud has them look at an interviewer off-camera, which looks dated.

Both films aptly excavate the financial crimes that McFarland committed, and both name and shame the naïve mega-rich investors—like Carola Jain, wife of Credit Suisse juggernaut Bob—who poured their cash into his fraudulent bucket. But the Netflix version goes deepest into McFarland’s criminal activities. There are details in this film that do not make it into Hulu’s, such as an unnamed person at the top of Fyre who was extorting Billy for cash.

Fyre Fraud ultimately surpasses Fyre because, in addition to having access to the man at the center of it all, it is better at drawing out the social forces that facilitated McFarland’s crimes. By foregrounding shallow Instagram influencers and the employees of Jerry Media—an agency that sprang from a cheap-gag Instagram account called @fuckjerry to helm the multi-million-dollar marketing campaign for Fyre Festival—Fyre Fraud directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason show that this debacle could, and probably will, happen again.

To what extent does Oren Aks, for example, bear responsibility for this disaster?McFarland was the huckster in the middle, of course. But nobody would have ever bought tickets to the event if his press people hadn’t presented such a false image of the product for sale. Every ticket to Fyre Festival was sold off the back of a single advertisement, featuring supermodels cavorting in the Bahamas, plus the social media placement that spread that advertisement across the world.

Before even airing the advertisement, Fyre Festival paid a huge quantity of social media influencers to tease the event by posting orange squares to their Instagram accounts. Abjectly thirsty Instagram fans slavered over the mysterious squares, wondering what the popular kids knew that they didn’t.

Once the ad of Bella Hadid writhing in a bikini on a boat hit the internet, the deal was done. And nothing—not the blow to the Great Exuma economy, not the financial crimes that McFarland committed—would have happened to the extent it did if that Instagram bubble hadn’t inflated. McFarland is a villain, of course; both documentaries demonstrate him to be a compulsive liar and a man addicted to defrauding other people. But the insecurity and “fear of missing out” he preyed upon in his consumers? He didn’t create that.

Whether we should blame that insecurity on ourselves, Instagram’s executives, social media marketing agencies, or professional “influencers” is one of the defining business ethics questions of our time. Influencer marketing extorts customers in the tradition of print advertising, of course—it shows them something they covet, so they’ll buy it. But the added element of “real lives” in marketing has plunged the industry to a new low. The practice of selling a product has come all the way down to the level of kindergarten, where the playground queen withholds and grants her attention according to an economy that determines human worth.

This is not a world I want to live in, but ever increasingly it is the one we have. It is much too convenient to blame Billy McFarland and Ja Rule for the Fyre Festival debacle. One moment in Netflix’s Fyre stands out as an emblem of the whole affair. The Fyre staff are wasted on the beach, directing their commercial in an ad hoc fashion. Ja Rule commands the model Chanel Iman to get into the water (it is nighttime), and she demurs. He yells, “Get in the fucking water, Chanel.” The scene is a juvenile fantasy of men acting like babies, treating women like toys, and knowing that at the end there will be the gigantic payoff of other men envying them online. Envy is something that exists in our hearts, not in the minds of charlatans: We have to look there for the answers.