A man is lifting the lid on the many clever tricks used by Instagram influencers to fake their way to fame, revealing just how easy it is to craft an aspirational online identity in just a few simple steps.
Writer-director Nick Bilton uncovers these strategies in a new HBO documentary, Fake Famous, which premiere on February 2, and follows him as he tries to build up three wannabe influencers: aspiring actress Dominique Druckman, art student Wiley Heiner, and designer Chris Bailey.
Over the course of a year, Bilton uses a series of simple tricks to manufacture their fame, buying followers and fabricating a luxurious lifestyle — and eventually gets Dominique, his most successful guinea pig, up to the 342,000 Instagram followers she has today.
How it’s done: A new HBO documentary reveals just how easy it is to fake being famous and craft an ‘influencer’ identity from scratch (pictured: Olivia Jade, not in the documentary)
Looks nice: There are several tricks that wannabe influencers can use to build up their presence (pictured: Chantel Jeffries, not in the documentary)
Tricks of the trade: Nick Bilton, who directed ‘Fake Famous’, reveals how to get more followers and influence quickly (pictured: Delilah Belle Hamlin, not in the doc)
From scratch: Bilton spent a year attempting to make three people Instagram famous, with incredible success for one (not pictured)
It’s a poorly-kept secret that many influencers and celebrities have loads of fake followers.
‘When you look on Instagram, there are over 140 million people who have over 100,000 followers,’ Bilton, 44, explained to the New York Post. ‘How is it that the entire population of Russia can be perceived as famous? It’s not possible.’
It’s fairly easy to pay for these faux fans, who aren’t real people but rather bots that follow algorithms and behave like real people.
‘It was really shocking to see how pervasive it was, how much money goes into it, and how the tech companies really don’t have a desire to do anything about it, because it inflates their numbers,’ Bilton added.
In his documentary, Bilton went to websites like Famoid.com to purchase followers and likes, with 7,500 followers and 2,500 likes costing him $119.60.
‘You don’t have to go to the dark web, or anything, you just go to the straight up internet and you can buy pretty much anything you want,’ he said.
Behind-the-scenes: Photos — like this one being shot of aspiring actress Dominique Druckman — aren’t always what meets the eye
Not really there: Dominique later posted this image from the shoot and tagged a spa
Expert: In the new documentary, Bilton buys followers and stages photoshoot to try to make three unknowns famous
Payoff! For Dominique, it worked, and she was soon getting offered paid sponsorships and free trips
Bots: One of Bilton’s tricks was to buy fake followers for his faux-influencers, including art student Wiley Heiner (pictured)
Fakers: In his documentary, Bilton went to websites like Famoid.com to purchase followers and likes for documentary star designer Chris Bailey (pictured)
Bilton really committed to the project, spending $15,000 on more than 300 follower-buying sites for his three influencers — but he thinks the average person could make themselves faux-famous for just $2,000.
The scheme may lead some to wonder why it’s worth it, since none of those bots are real admirers.
But the overall goal is to make people ‘appear more popular than they really are’ — and the more popular they appear, the more real follower they will attract.
More importantly, a high follower count can lead to sponsorship deals, including free gifts and even lots of cash.
According to Influencer Marketing Hub, a ‘nano-influencer’ with 1,000 to 10,000 followers on Instagram can earn up to $100 per post, while ‘mega-influencers’ with a million followers or more can earn $10,000 for a single post.
Dominique, for one, soon attracted brands who offered sponsorship deals and free trips. She has also scored more auditions as an actress since her follower count hit 100,000.
There is one caveat, however: Occasionally, Instagram purges fake followers, deleting account that appear to be bots or spammers.
Ooh-la-la! He’d also stage shoots in fake locations. Here, Dominique posed in Bilton’s backyard — but tagged the Four Seasons
On the cheap: Wannabes can tag luxe places even if they’re not there — or show up to a hotel or bar for a photo without spending money
‘[Influencers can] fake all-expenses paid, free camping trips, so that later they can get a free, all-expense paid camping trip,’ Bilton said
Not the real deal: At one point in the doc, Chris does a workout at a ‘private’ VIP gym (pictured)
In fact, the gym was actually set up in a warehouse — but tight shots keep the secret
Fake a luxe lifestyle to get free trips and products
Influencers are generally aspirational — so wannabes need to make it at least look like they’re living in the lap of luxury.
While some cash is necessary, though, aspiring influencers need not be rolling in the dough.
‘[Influencers can] fake all-expenses paid, free camping trips, so that later they can get a free, all-expense paid camping trip,’ Bilton said in the film.
‘They fake hiking in the Redwoods so they can try and get free hiking gear and sponsorships. They fake free upgrades to first class or trips on private planes.’
The photography tricks used to create an illusion of wealth
Faking your environment can be pretty easy. In the documentary, faux-influencer Dominique poses for pictures and tags herself at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, a five star hotel. In actuality, she was in Bilton’s backyard.
She also posed in close-up with her head in a kiddie pool decorated with fake rose petals to simulate a spa treatment.
Designer Chris’s ‘private gym’ in Beverly Hills was actually shot in a warehouse.
And rather than splash out money on champagne, the doc’s influencers drank apple juice in champagne flutes.
Faked! Natalia Taylor faked a vacation to Bali on Instagram in 2020 by sharing images of herself that were taken in a local Ikea, proving to her followers how easy it is to pretend online
Strike a pose! The influencer took photographer Ally Amodeo to her local Ikea for an impromptu photoshoot in front of confused customers and staff
Just pretend: Natalia used the Bali geotag for all posts shared on her main feed, while also posting fake snaps of herself ‘traveling’ on her Instagram Stories
Before sharing the Ikea shoot, Natalia posted several fake photos of herself supposedly traveling to Bali to make the entire prank more believable
The big reveal: The influencer documented the entire experiment in a YouTube video, where she has close to 2 million followers
In February of 2020, California-based influencer Natalia Taylor, 24, demonstrated this for her over 300,000 Instagram followers and two million YouTube followers.
Later, she revealed that all of the photos were really taken at her local Ikea.
In a YouTube video about the stunt, she explained: ‘The timeline on Instagram had to be believable, so I started with my Stories and literally took pictures from the internet for this. I looked up the hashtag #Bali and found airport snaps that I took.
‘The point of this video was to show people how easy it is to trick people into thinking you’re someone you’re not.
‘Everyone believed I was there, no one is questioning it – even though the Ikea tag is there in the second picture, along with an Ikea iPad,’ she added.
Stunt: YouTube star Gabbie Hanna faked a trip to Coachella in 2019, posing for photos like this one that was edited
Not in the desert! Gabbie actually posed for pictures on the balcony of a home in Marina Del Rey, California
Work: ‘I’m tired from pretending to be at Coachella,’ she admitted. ‘I can’t even imagine actually being at Coachella’
Difficult: Gabbie edited in all the backgrounds to make it look like she was really there
Faking it: Gabbie found a field to lie in while posing for pictures during her second day at Coachella
Festival gear: She donned a yellow wig, a funky bra top, and cut-off shorts while pretending she was hanging out at Coachella
And in April 2019, vlogger Gabbie Hanna faked a trip to Coachella.
The YouTube star had photos of herself professionally edited by photographer Kellan Hendry to make it appear as though she attended the second weekend of the music festival.
She also turned her friend’s home into her ‘Airbnb’ and printed out fake versions of the Coachella artist wristband.
Later, she revealed the truth in a YouTube video titled ‘I Faked Going To Coachella,’ explaining that she was inspired by other social media influencers who have pulled off similar tricks.
‘I can pull this off because I know people who go to Coachella weekend one and bring twice as many outfits and double up on their outfit each day so that they can pretend like they’re at Coachella weekend two, but they’re not,’ she said.
‘They’re at home,’ she explained. ‘Social media is a lie. So what I’m doing isn’t that far from reality anyway.’
In the HBO documentary, Chris goes to a private plane studio to pose for pictures that made it look like he was on his own jet
Gotcha! In fact, it was a fake plane set constructed just for pictures
‘Literally anything is available to you to help fake your shoots, including fake private jets,’ Bilton says in the doc
Careful! AS long as the angle is right, no one would know it’s a set
It does seem to work! While Dominique earned fame from the experiment, her co-stars — including Wiley (pictured) didn’t, but Bilton said that didn’t commit like she did
While wannabe influencers can turn to Photoshop and fake locales, they can also take photos at real luxe locations for a price.
In the HBO documentary, Bilton rents a mansion for a photoshoot, spending $600 to have access for the afternoon. While that’s no small fee, it’s certainly a lot cheaper than buying the mansion.
Bilton also stages a photoshoot inside a private jet studio for $49.99 an hour.
The set looks like the inside of a jet — as long as it’s filmed from the right angle.
‘Literally anything is available to you to help fake your shoots, including fake private jets,’ he says in the doc.
Insta life: In 2018, 33-year-old LA-based artist and entrepreneur Matty Mo debuted The Private Jet Experience in Los Angeles
Lifestyles of the rich and famous? People flocked to the setup to strike a pose on the faux leather seats
Surprise! Complete with plush carpeting and round plane windows, the fake private jet was simply a set with two chairs
The traveling project was a replica of the interior of a Gulfstream G3 jet, built solely for the purpose of a cool Instagram snap
Influencers have made great use of fake private jets. In 2018, 33-year-old LA-based artist and entrepreneur Matty Mo debuted The Private Jet Experience in Los Angeles.
The traveling project was a replica of the interior of a Gulfstream G3 jet, built solely for the purpose of a cool Instagram snap.
Originally stationed inside the Fred Segal store on LA’s Sunset Boulevard, the installation was outfitted with faux leather seats, carpeting, and props like glasses of champagne.
‘The Private Jet Experience was created because we wanted to be able to take pictures on a private jet like all of the celebrities we see online,’ Mo said in a statement.
‘Most people cannot afford a real jet, so we made one that democratizes access to a backdrop previously reserved for the rich and famous,