Nick Bilton on Creating Instagram Influencers for Social Experiment Documentary ‘Fake Famous’

For journalist Nick Bilton’s first film, he didn’t want to just document the world of social media influencers, he wanted to influence it himself. So he set out to find ordinary people who he could help get famous online through the purchase of bots that would grow their follower counts and engagement, and then he filmed the process for a documentary entitled “Fake Famous.”

The process of making the film was one Bilton likens to “putting a leaf in a stream and whichever way it goes, it goes.” Although the formula to making his three protagonists famous (at least on Instagram) was one he feels anyone could use and find success with, it had different results for all three because of the level of willingness they exhibited in going along with the experiment and allowing bots to take over their accounts and, to an extent, their lives.

Actor Dominique Druckman “would do anything we asked of her,” Bilton says, but fashion designer Chris Bailey rejected the use of bots, and former real estate agent-turned-psychology student Wylie Heiner worried about being called out for his fakeness and set his account to private at one point in the middle of shooting.

The COVID-19 pandemic hitting in the middle of production was another curveball that altered the structure of the film. “The original ending of the movie was going to be that we were going to try to get one of them to 1 million followers and have a million-follower party at the Chateau Marmont, have it sponsored by a bunch of brands, have a bunch of celebrities show up thinking they were coming to a celebrity influencer party,” Bilton tells Variety.

Still, Bilton, who has been covering the tech world for two decades and started his own bot farm a few years back, finds that both the diversity in the story he ended up telling, and the organic nature to how he got there, is what works best about his exposé into the pervasiveness of the false sense of fame being perpetuated on social media.

“The reality of what all of this is, is that every single, solitary person on Instagram has fake followers, whether they bought them or they didn’t, because bots make up half of the engagement on the platform,” Bilton says. “The most astounding number to me was that 140 million people on Instagram had over 100,000 followers and 40 million have over 1 million followers. So you’re going to tell me that 140 million people are famous? The whole thing is such bullshit and everyone buys into it.”

Here, Bilton talks with Variety about finding his protagonists, the unexpected amount of work that goes into maintaining fake social media interactions and how mental health played a factor in production.

As someone with such an extensive background in tech, what do you feel you learned from making “Fake Famous” that was unexpected?

It’s just a lot of work. The perception I had originally was that it wasn’t going to be as much work as it was. I was doing all of the research into the bots; I, for legal reasons, bought all the bots; but also, I kept getting ripped off by kids in Egypt and Ukraine. There are all of these different levels of bots: You can by 10,000 bots for $100 that are going to be not very good or you could buy 10,000 bots for $1,000 that are going to be incredible and easily mistake for real people. So, for me it was a lot of experimenting with what was going to work and what wasn’t. And before I got everyone on this automated algorithm that I put together, it was a lot of literally, at 11 o’clock at night, getting a text, “I’m about to post,” and I’d go, “Oh shit” and get my credit card and go to the sites that worked and then I would write the fake comments.

And then there was Chris, who was actively working to undo all of that work you were doing for him. Did you consider pivoting the strategy around his story to show what it would take to grow his accounts organically, since authenticity was so important to him, instead?

To grow accounts organically is a lot slower. I would have loved to have done that, but I think we would have been filming for 10 years. [Laughs]

There’s a moment early in the film where Wylie mentions his anxiety, and then later those anxieties become much more prevalent for him. Was the way social media impacts mental health always a story you wanted to tell, and how did you make sure each of these three protagonists were OK as filming went on?

We were originally going to get two people, but we got three because we liked Wylie so much we wanted to add him to it. When we did the casting call at the beginning, we said, “Do you want to be famous?” We had 5,000 people that showed up and we had one day to film the casting call. So, we were literally bringing people in for 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes and then we went back and looked at the tapes. So, we didn’t really have any opportunity to hear from Wylie about his anxieties until we started filming.

We did check-ins with everyone, where we would film them and I’d talk to them about how they feel, what they were trying to get out of this, “Are you OK?” Dominique was just like, “This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me; I’m going to do everything I can to make it work.” Chris started to pull back. Wylie, when he freaked out, I said, “Take a beat, no pressure.” I went and got drinks and coffees with him without cameras to try to talk through what was going on. More than any of them, I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. As a reporter I remember talking to one of the founders of Twitter and saying, “What happens when you get all this money?” And the guy said, “It doesn’t change who you are, it just exacerbates it; it makes it more intense.” And I think fame and attention does the same thing. For Wylie, the anxiety became magnified and he had to deal with it, but in the end he had a really amazing lesson he learned from it.

What do you think it says that the one woman in the experiment was willing to go all-in and had the success you originally planned for all three, while the two guys decided to go different routes?

I think it was personality, I don’t think it had anything to do with gender. But I do think that it’s a lot easier to pull it off with a woman than a man [because] women have a little more leeway with what kind of influencer they can be.

The film effectively exposes how easy it is to fake a life on Instagram, not only with fake followers, like and comments, but with staging photos as well. What discussions did you have to have with Dominique, Chris and Wylie about how they may be perceived after it is revealed they faked so much?

They knew from the beginning this was the deal. It’s still to be determined [how they will be perceived], but I think they’re all grateful they got to have the opportunity and see how it worked behind the scenes.

And you’re not still buying them bots?

I stopped buying Dominique bots when she got to a quarter of a million [followers] and she’s now at around 340,000, so she’s still getting followers. Some of them are bots and some of them are real, but the prophecy fulfilled itself. Dominique’s life has completely changed: She gets free stuff; she goes on more auditions. There was this one moment we didn’t have in the film where her mom came to visit her in L.A. and they’re trying to get a reservation at a fancy restaurant — before the pandemic, of course — and her mom said, “Oh my daughter’s an influencer,” and they get the reservation. Going into it I knew it had an impact, but I didn’t know the degree to which the perception of these numbers affects the impact.

Did you ever consider including the pet influencer world in this film?

We did. There was a guy who showed up at the casting call who brought his dog and also, when we were looking for a set to shoot on, we found one where they had just done a bunch of interviews for pet influencers and we were like, “Should we go down that road?” and we decided not to. It’s just a different film.

“Fake Famous” premieres Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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