How responsible are you for scandals that catch Fyre?
Updated: May 13
In 2017, Billy McFarland and Ja Rule were set to host Fyre Festival–until they weren’t. Promoted on social media with the prophetic tagline “on the boundaries of impossible,” the music festival imploded, leaving hundreds of people stranded on an island and thousands pursuing legal action in the years following. A very abbreviated timeline of what occurred is…
The event was widely promoted on social media (primarily Instagram) by about a dozen social media influencers.
Most notable was the coordination of the sharing of orange squares on Instagram, piquing the curiosity of users and ultimately driving them to learn more about the festival.
Ticket sales went well–the marketing team was certainly successful, ultimately selling about 8,000 tickets and VIP packages ranging from $1,200 to $12,000 each.
Behind the scenes, event planners couldn’t keep up with everything the festival’s hosts were promising. Multiple people for a variety of different reasons expressed concerns that promises couldn’t be met. They were either told to be more positive or they were replaced on the team.
Attendees began to express concerns via social media when they couldn’t secure answers to basic questions about their accommodations.
An additional alarm was raised when, days before the festival, musical acts began to pull out of the festival.
On April 28th, the first wave of festival attendees arrived to discover that the luxury music festival they had been promised would fall short of their expectations.
The “luxury jet” they were promised was a cramped and wildly underwhelming airplane with a Fyre Festival logo on the tail.
Once attendees arrived in town, they were shuttled to the campgrounds on buses, passing their “luxury suites,” which they could then see were disaster relief tents (and by then, that did seem a little fitting).
All but one musical act bailed on the event–and the act was a local group who played for just a few hours the first night.
One of their first and definitely most Twitter-famous meals expressed how bad the food was better than words ever could by tweeting a picture of a cheese sandwich in a to-go box.
Unable to get people off of the island and unequipped to care for everyone, by nightfall the crowd had descended into chaos. Farland gave up on organizing people and told them to just grab a tent and claim it. People could be seen carrying (or needlessly destroying) mattresses, hoarding toilet paper (an act not popularized until the pandemic years later), and, true to form, documenting the horrible event on social media.
After being stranded on the island with limited food and water for 24 hours, eventually people were able to secure travel home, but that would prove to be just the beginning of their journey.
So how did 8,000 people buy tickets to a festival that failed?
Countless criminal cases and even historical events showcase examples of people believing something simply because they have no reason not to. The Fyre Festival had legitimate people talking about the event, marketing collateral that showed a real destination, and an official registration process that made everything seem real.
Why didn’t they ask more questions? And perhaps more importantly, what responsibility did the people promoting the event have in convincing them to attend the greatest event that never was?
How responsible are influencers for the products they endorse?
The number of criminal charges associated with the Fyre Festival is relatively small.
In March of 2018, Billy McFarland pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud and was sentenced to six years in a federal prison.
In November of 2019, Ja Rule was officially dismissed from a $100 million class-action lawsuit filed by Fyre festival attendees and was cleared of any legal wrongdoing.
Kendall Jenner was paid $275,000 for her endorsement and eventually agreed to pay a $90,000 settlement for her involvement in promoting Fyre Festival on social media.
This list of lawsuits from 2017 provides a nice idea of how widespread the harm was. Investors, businesses hired and not paid, attendees…the finger-pointing is a bit dizzying. Years later, blame is still shifting and investigations continue.
Interestingly, very few influencers suffered any consequences (short of embarrassment) related to the festival. Though they were largely what drove the success of the festival, it seems they’ve largely been viewed as not culpable–even victims themselves.
My Favorite Whistleblower
While there were many people who raised concerns and begged McFarland to stop making promises that couldn’t be kept, Calvin Wells deserves a separate callout. Wells created and still maintains @fyrefraud on Twitter. Early on he began to suspect that the promises being made wouldn’t be kept and even went so far as to charter a plane and fly over the “private island” to collect evidence proving that what the festival was promoting wasn’t reality.
Legally collecting evidence and tweeting his findings, Wells was transparent.
But even though citizen investigators far and wide would respect his efforts and he’d eventually be proven right, he was no match for the Fyre Festival marketing team–or maybe it was the audience’s intense desire to believe in the festival that couldn’t be overcome. Whatever the root cause, I appreciated his efforts and was inspired by his attempt to be smart enough to see the fraud coming and brave enough to try to do something about it.
Resources for Citizen Investigators & Internet Sleuths
Working in the marketing space, I heard a lot about Fyre Festival, but if you didn’t, I’d encourage you to check out articles that provide a simple walk-through of the timeline of events like this one. If you don't mind wading through the ads, it provides great examples of what was happening and when, in addition to social media posts that show what people were thinking and saying before, during, and after the failed event.
I personally watched both documentaries about the festival and recommend them equally. Hulu released Fyre Fraud and Netflix released Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened just a few days later. Shorter versions of the story can be found as episodes of American Greed and The Con.
This was such a visual story, I realized that I hadn’t really read or even looked for any books on the topic, but with a little research I found Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet—and Why We're Following, and it seems Fyre Festival is featured prominently on its pages. Though I haven’t read it yet myself, the reviews are good and it seems worth checking out.
And if you’re on Twitter, Oren Aks, the creative director and social media lead for the festival's accounts, still manages @fyrefestival (though he's happily moved on to a different agency).
Questions? Answers? Leave them below.