Fyre, Baudrillard, The Nature of Fake News
Netflix and Hulu released a pair of documentaries about Fyre Festival that caught my eye. For those out of the loop, Fyre Festival was a summer music festival that happened in the early summer of 2017. Advertising a star studded artist lineup and a setup on what used to be Pablo Escabar’s private island, Fyre was the brainchild of entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja-Rule to promote their talent booking app of the same name. Instagram influencers the likes of, Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid among others were hired to star in an extravagant video to sell the festival in a social media blitz. Consumers were sold accommodations in luxury villas and meals made by celebrity chefs for thousands of dollars. Attendees would bask in the jealous envy of their friends as they lived it up in a once in a lifetime experience.
However, the reality that the attendees showed up to included FEMA emergency tents as makeshift accommodation, airline quality sandwiches, a severe lack of proper medical services and that most artists had cancelled. After the inevitable cancellation of the festival, attendees were left in the airport as they waited for delayed flights without food or water. This glorious shitshow, which equated to effectively fraud, has been put on the shoulders of Billy McFarland in the form of a 6 years in prison and a $26 million fine.
So what does this have to do with anything? While it's cathartic to watch a bunch of rich spoiled Instagram kids get duped, I think this is a great example of whats wrong with our collective online attitudes. Flash to a little guy named Jean Baudrillard, a French post-structuralist philosopher renowned for his work, “Simulacra and Simulation”. For a criminally short summation that doesn't do the source material any justice: ain't nothin’ real, everything is a copy of something or a copy of a copy, a phenomenon he called simulacra.
What happened at Fyre Festival is Jean Baudrillard’s wet dream. It was his philosophy in its purest form, put under the spotlight in comical proportions. Where Instagram promoters were simulacra personified, advertising a superficially created music festival that never could’ve existed in the first place. A facade that maintained its falsehood right up until the whole thing imploded.
That threshold where everything falls apart is interesting to me. In this case the reality of the situation was binary and inevitable, the festival either happens or it doesn't and the date is set, the reality was revealed when the attendees arrived. But that’s not always that simple. Before the attendees arrival Fyre was a pure simulacra, a reality fabricated only by reflections of falsehoods. A reputable source, Fyre, says a festival is going to happen. This is then corroborated by reputable Instagram models, which is then backed by artists and corporate sponsors. But the initial offering was never going to happen so all the corroboration equates to falsehood as well.
This idea is, I think, social media’s biggest problem currently, especially since algorithmic recommendations inherently reinforce beliefs that echo off of each other. Google wants to filter out things that aren’t relevant to you, so recommendations will naturally cater to your existing beliefs. Even if those beliefs turn out to be wrong or misled, searches will still give you the information that is most relevant to the user. Falsehoods made reality by the reflection and the corroboration of other falsehoods.
The recent Anti-Vax movement is a great example. The modern day movement began with just a single paper being published in 1998 that attempted to draw a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. From there it only takes one person to believe and propagate the idea for the idea to have ground to stand on. Especially on the internet where ideas move quickly and fluidly, false information can take flight easily. Once there’s two sources that are propagating an idea they begin to validate each other. From there, like before, it only takes one person to believe and propagate the idea thus perpetuating it further when it can grow exponentially creating these famous rabbit holes that exist on websites like Youtube.
With so many sources on a single subject I can see how it could be easy to succumb to these kinds of arguments. The idea becomes a reality in itself once enough people subscribe to it. Online we seem to live in these realities that are separate from the capital “R” reality that everyone seems to be looking for, what Baudrillard called “sacramental order”. Whether it’s different political realities, scientific realities or Baudrillard's primary example, economic realities in the form of currency, perception is an important thing to recognize and can almost be considered a resource. Even when something comes along and attempts to break down part of these realities (for example the universal consensus from the scientific community that vaccines are safe) the effects are marginal. People that believe these things tend to double down and find something to fill the hole.
What made Fyre so interesting to me is that normally these simulacra feel ethereal, like they pop into existence out of nothing. These types of ethereal simulacra tend to be really hard to break down, especially in the short term. Their sturdiness is partly because human nature is stubborn and tends to reject admitting wrong, but also because of how the simulacra is built. These falsehoods take off, go viral and start corroborating themselves. And it becomes more real as more people become aware of it, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the simulacra.
Fyre on the other hand deteriorated so quickly and explosively that the effects of the simulacra can’t be denied. The whole thing feels so tangible and it’s a great case study, to the point where it’s almost allegorical. I think Fyre's catastrophic failure reinforces an idea that is happening politically right now: That this is what change requires now, no longer the steady march of progress. People on both sides of the political spectrum are sick of the slow, arduous and seemingly vain attempts to fight against these simulacra and would rather band together with their like minded echo chambers to force through biased ideals. The American voters showed us this in 2016, they are sick of moderation, sick of what feels like a bridge being built to nowhere. They wanted action, extremes. I think it’s the same idea that liberal progressives are banking on in 2020. The Sanders, Warrens, and Cortez’ of the world are building a platform based on dreams of a full system overhaul.
But I think this is a dangerous road to go down. I think both sides hearts are in the right place, at least in the context of the constituents. Both sides want what’s best for the country, for the people, to maximize utility. To think otherwise is just a demonization of the other side and part of the problem. Partisan politics aren’t a good thing, we’re hurtling towards a place where people live in their own political realities, devoid of compromise and worse, devoid of context.