A fake empire
One of the biggest podcast hits of the year is The Dropout, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes’ sham billion-dollar company Theranos, which falsely promised to revolutionize health care.
The reporting talks about how Holmes — a college drop-out like her idol Steve Jobs — affected a fake low-pitched voice to sound authoritative. She also fabricated major components of their business including a partnership with the military to use their product in war zones.
Two of the most popular documentaries of the year — carried separately by both Netflix and Hulu — are about how the organizers of the Fyre Festival duped people into buying tickets to a remote island. They created a fake fantasy on “the boundaries of the impossible” with images of glamorous models and Instagram stars.
And now, the №1 story of the day by far is the “largest college admission scam ever,” which involves scheming celebrities, business leaders and wealthy parents to cheat their kids’ way into elite universities. It has 5 million+ searches on Google and counting.
According to The New York Times story on the admissions scandal:
A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million.
A high school boy eager to enroll at the University of Southern California was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so he could take his standardized test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. Cost to his parents: at least $50,000.
A student with no experience rowing won a spot on the U.S.C. crew team after a photograph of another person in a boat was submitted as evidence of her prowess. Her parents wired $200,000 into a special account.
Who said cheaters never prosper? Being fake was the secret ingredient to success in each of these instances. And it worked! Until it didn’t.
When they are found out, these stories inspire massive outpourings of schadenfreude. We love seeing frauds publically fail and get exactly what they deserve. All of these storylines involve privileged and entitled people who act like they are better than us.
They faked it until they were found to be phony.
We cheer when the system works — as it should. We take satisfaction in the fake festival crashing down, the fake unicorn company going bankrupt and the indictment of fake students.
But this also provides a glimpse of why gaming the system works.
I wonder if we’d be paying as much attention to this story if celebrities weren’t involved. The top Google searches for this story relate to the famous people — Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin— who were only a small part of a much larger scheme involving 30 parents, coaches, test proctors and a college prep business. That shows the power of celebrity.
It’s not just a problem involving steroids in baseball, doping in the Olympics, illicit campaign contributions in elections, or the powerful getting their kids into elite universities. Those are just where recent scandals have been exposed.
This is going to keep happening again and again. And all of us are to blame, to some degree.
So you didn’t conspire to hand over $15,000 to help your daughter cheat on the SATs. Good for you.
But we’re all part of a system that reveres, rewards and fetishizes status. We’re a culture that thinks success is indicated by test scores and job titles. We’re a society that measures happiness by followers and zeroes in your paycheck.
We’ve built a system that narrowly defines success. That incentivizes zero-sum competition. Happiness becomes a social performance.
Education reporter Erin Richards wrote a must-read article about how this scandal was a long time in coming. She wrote that parents are responding to the idea of “narrowly defined success” when they exploit loopholes to get into top colleges:
College has become such a status symbol that even celebrity parents were allegedly willing to break the rules to get their child a slot in an elite school, according to the federal complaint.
“I don’t think we should be super surprised,” said Bari Norman, the co-founder and director of counseling at Expert Admissions, a Manhattan-based firm that helps teens around the world prepare for the exams and college applications that will determine the next four years of their lives.
“It speaks to the desperation of parents and just how high stakes college admissions have become,” Norman added. “And unfortunately, it speaks to a lot of the messages we’re sending to kids, which is the most concerning part of this story.”
Success, in other words, becomes a popularity contest.
A year ago a report by The New York Times found that celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers in an effort to demonstrate popularity.
One of the companies the Times exposed was Devumi, an “influencer marketing company.” Before their downfall, Devumi wrote tips about how to create “social proof signals” that “indicate the credibility of a business or lack thereof.”
For example, having a large following on Twitter, Facebook, and other similar social sites can make your business appear trustworthy. In fact, when other people follow or like your business’s social media pages, they’re actually endorsing your brand in a way.
In the same way, people who share or like your content and products on social media sites become an ambassador for you. So, when new visitors stop by, they think: “Hey, this site looks pretty popular. More than 10,000 people have already subscribed. It must be worth following so I’ll do the same.”
This crowd effect can continue to compel new visitors to observe what the fuss is all about when they check out your online profiles.
Devumi then sold fake followers so anyone could boost their “social proof signals,” aka fake popularity. That continues to be an effective strategy.
At the time, I wrote that it’s easy to condemn the shadowy identity thieves who create these fake follower mills. But they’re also only responding to our demand — the need for popularity, validation and more more more.
Do you really like me?
In the hockey-stick growth days of social media — roughly 2008–2010 — there was a gold rush of collecting as many…
Today, that proves to still be true.