Gabrielle Bluestone is out to get internet scammers
The law-student-turned-journalist talks about her new book on the rise of internet scam artists
victor jeffreys II
It took Gabrielle Bluestone just a few minutes to conclude that the heavily-hyped Fyre Festival was not what it claimed to be. It was 2017, and Bluestone, working as a journalist at Vice, had only been peripherally aware of the now-infamous music festival — fraudulently billed as an elite getaway on a Bahamian island and promoted by scores of influencers — until she noticed on Instagram that a former high school classmate was going. She clicked through to the website to see what the fuss was all about.
“What I found there made no sense,” Bluestone, 32, recounts in her first book, Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, and Con Artists Are Taking Over the Internet ― and Why We’re Following. “The site was offering $250,000 ticket packages with yachts and private chefs, yet it looked like it had been designed in a high-school coding class.”
Bluestone smelled a scam, and soon enough her intuition proved correct as attendees — who had paid exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of mingling with social media celebrities and taking in a Blink-182 set — arrived at the festival site only to find that they had been marooned at what turned out to be a modern-day Potemkin village whose bare-bones accommodations included disaster-relief tents and cheese sandwiches.
Thanks to her early sense of suspicion, Bluestone was quickly out with the first reported story on the overhyped event masterminded by the notorious con man Billy McFarland, who is now serving a six-year sentence in federal prison for fraud. Bluestone, for her part, went on to serve as an executive producer on the Netflix documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” But she was also convinced that the festival blowup was only one particularly egregious example in a larger pattern of online hucksterism.
So, using her experience as a former law student as well as reporting stints at Gawker, Jezebel and Vice, Bluestone, who lives in New York, set out to examine such schemes — and the reasons we fall for them — in her new book, released this week by Hanover Square Press. “Con artists have presumably been around since prehistoric times,” she writes. “But there was something new here at play, a tech-assisted accelerant, that enabled McFarland to subvert our hyperconnected society, which, given all these technological advancements, should have spotlighted him from miles away.”
In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Bluestone discussed her background in law, how she came to report on McFarland’s scam and why she believes there will, without a doubt, be another sort of Fyre Festival in the not so distant future. “Definitely,” she said. “No equivocation.”
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jewish Insider: You studied to be an attorney and then went on to work at several different online publications before producing the documentary about the Fyre Festival and writing this book. Can you describe your trajectory and how you came to journalism?
Gabrielle Bluestone: I was in my second year of law school and a dedicated reader of Gawker, and I happen to notice that they were advertising for a weekend writer. I was a journalism major undergrad, didn’t really know that was a sustainable career that you could still have at that point, so I kind of applied just to see what would happen, somehow got that job, and that just changed everything. I finished out law school, passed the bar, but I really liked writing, and the thought that that could be a career was, you know, mind-blowing at that point. So I worked at Gawker until it shut down in 2016, which, having some legal understanding of what was going on, certainly helped — not that it alleviated anything.
Then I moved to Jezebel and Vice, and that was where I first came across the Fyre Festival story. That turned into the documentary, which then led to the book, so it’s just been kind of a wild ride through the various ways of writing. I write a lot about scam artists and crime, and so having a legal background is certainly very helpful. It’s very helpful doing legal research and trying to dig up old case files, and so I found that the two really complement each other. I’ve been really lucky to kind of get to focus on all of my interests in that way.
JI: What kind of lawyer did you want to be?
Bluestone: I had been very interested in criminal law. I interned for the Brooklyn DA’s office. If I had ended up going into law as a full-time attorney, it would have been focused on criminal law.
JI: In the introduction, you note that getting the go-ahead to report on the Fyre Festival from your editors at Vice was not unlike trying to convert to Judaism. You had to pitch the story, you wrote, “three times before the editorial beit din saw the now-legendary cheese sandwich photos on social media and decided it was go time.” That’s a funny description.
Bluestone: It’s just seemed an apt metaphor, honestly.
JI: Can you describe the process by which you intuited that the Fyre Festival was a scam and then decided to look into it more deeply?
Bluestone: I saw the campaign unfold on Instagram, like I think many people in my age cohort did, and it didn’t really strike me much at the time. Then I saw someone I knew was going, and I was like, “Oh, what is this?” So I looked it up, and the website looked like something someone would do as a class project. There was nothing professional or elite or luxurious about it. The product they were presenting was so far from the marketing, that, you know, that “Spidey sense” was kind of activated. I was like, “There’s something going on here.” The more I looked into it, the more all of their claims were falling apart. In real time, you could see people trying to figure out their flights that they paid thousands of dollars for, on Twitter, on social media. But for some reason, the media wasn’t responding in that way. I think The Wall Street Journal had one article about how artists hadn’t been paid. But Vogue and Vanity Fair and all these publications were hyping it up and just taking the marketing at face value. Because all these influencers signed on, it seemed real. So that was kind of where that all started, and then obviously it melted down in spectacular fashion on social media as people arrived and saw what they had paid for.
JI: When did you realize that you had enough material to expand on some of the larger themes you address in your book?
Bluestone: There was so much more about what went into the planning and how he got away with it that, even with two documentaries, it was almost impossible to cover that much stuff. So it really seemed to me that there was an interesting book in that. But then, the more that I thought about it — all the ways in which his scheme was enabled, whether it was by the media, by the influencers and social media, by the ticket buyers themselves and that emotional reaction that you have to what you see on your screen — I realized that it was happening over and over in so many different areas that it went way beyond Fyre Festival and said much more about our culture today.
JI: Why do you think people fell so hard for the Fyre Festival when you were able to discern it was a scam just from a cursory examination of its website?
Bluestone: The people that were buying tickets weren’t the people that could afford the $250,000 yacht package. They were kids that could scrape together enough money maybe to buy a $1,500 ticket believing that would grant them entree into this kind of lifestyle that they’d been following on social media. So I think the short answer to why they fell for it is because they wanted to. They wanted to believe that it would be that easy to hang out on a beach with Kendall Jenner or Bella Hadid. All you had to do was buy this ticket, and that’s what [McFarland] was promising. I don’t think people got as far as looking at the website. I think they saw all the influencers and the influencer campaign and just bought in based off of that.
JI: Scams and hype obviously aren’t new by any measure, but the sort of snake oil you describe in your book feels distinctly of the 21st century.
Bluestone: It’s funny you say that because there was actually a Fyre Festival in the early 1800s, I think — there was this guy Gregor MacGregor who sold bank bonds to a country that didn’t exist and then sent boats of settlers there, and I think they all perished. But it’s accelerated by technology and by social media and the emotions that are wrapped up in it without us even realizing. I think the reason people trust influencers is because they follow them, they see them as friends, we’re invited into every aspect of their life — or at least we appear to be — so you know where they live, where they go out, who they hang out with, what kind of makeup they use. It’s like things that you would know about a friend, and so, I think, on a psychological level, you really start to trust them — until that trust is ripped away as the Fyre Festival revealed.
JI: And how do you feel this sense of credulity expands more broadly? Do you think we can tie it into the election of former President Donald Trump, for example?
Bluestone: Part of it is definitely marketing. Donald Trump was very good at marketing. He was very good at social media. I think the parallels between him and the Fyre Festival are numerous and apt.
JI: And what about the broader culture?
Bluestone: I think meme culture and FOMO plays into it. I think you saw that with GameStop and people who get into QAnon as a joke before they’re pulled in for real. I think you see it playing out in similar patterns in a vast variety of industries.
JI: Were there any surprise discoveries you made while working on the book?
Bluestone: Definitely. This is a little bit separate from what we’ve been talking about, but I spoke to a very famous, renowned plastic surgeon who is behind a lot of the famous faces that you see on Instagram, and he was telling me that there is a massive problem with doctors photoshopping their results. You can’t really trust a lot of what you’re seeing, and beyond that, to speak to the marketing, a lot of doctors end up getting pressured into buying machines that are ineffective or that they have no interest in using because they’re marketed so well on social media that clients call them up demanding it.
JI: You seem to have a pretty strong sensitivity to scams, but have you ever been duped yourself?
Bluestone: I fall for Instagram ads and products all the time. Even writing a book, I’m shocked at how much I still fall for that kind of thing. One of the chapters in the book details my experience with Danielle Bernstein, who is a designer who’s been accused of stealing a lot of her designs. When I first started talking with her, I didn’t know any of that, and so to compare what I learned about her versus what my impression of her was just based off of the internet, I think, was definitely one of those moments.
JI: Do you think there will be another sort of Fyre Festival?
Bluestone: Definitely. Yeah. 100%. No equivocation.
JI: Do you hope that your book will help offset that possibility?
Bluestone: I hope it’ll get people thinking because a large element of this is, you kind of have to want — not want to be tricked — but there is an element of self-delusion in there that you believe something that seems too good to be true is true. So I hope it makes people think more critically about how they’re consuming the news, consuming social media and, emotionally, how we’re letting it affect us. I think that’s a really important conversation we should be having.
JI: Can you talk a bit about Billy McFarland? His whole story seems distinctly American in the P.T. Barnum sense, perhaps going on up to Trump.
Bluestone: I mean, he’s a terrible businessman, but he is an incredible storyteller. He knows how to sell people what they want, and he knows how to do that without necessarily having the product that he’s promising. But, you know, he’s a brilliant marketer, and I think that aligns with Trump as well. Yeah, it is like a distinctly American type of con artist. And once he gets out of prison, I don’t think this is the last we’ve heard from him. I’m sure he’ll be back with some new exciting venture for people to buy into, and I’m curious to see how people react to that.
JI: You address COVID a bit in your book. How do you feel like the themes you explore tie into the pandemic?
Bluestone: I think the pandemic really laid bare how much your own opinion goes into what facts we choose to believe or don’t. The fact that you have half the country denying that COVID is real — or whatever the actual ratio is — but you have, let’s say, a large swath of the country denying that this is a real thing — it really lays bare how bad things have gotten. And I think the algorithm plays into that. It’s not that we’re reading the same news story and disagreeing on it; we’re reading totally different news stories. It’s completely separate realities. I don’t know what the solution is, but the problem is certainly obvious.
JI: Are you yourself active on social media?
Bluestone: I don’t post a lot, but I definitely use it a lot.
JI: Do you think there’s any platform that’s better for disseminating accurate information?
Bluestone: I don’t know, but one thing I’ve realized is I feel like, especially in media, you hear people talking about what a hell site Twitter and Instagram are, and I realized it’s a hell site because we make it a hell site. What you’re seeing is what you’ve chosen to follow. So, obviously, people are spreading disinformation — I don’t think that there should be a platform for that — but a lot of it comes down to what you want to see; you’re seeing what you opt into. So one thing I actually did during quarantine was I unfollowed all the influencers or all the opinion people that I had been following and just followed like nice stuff or interesting stuff. I’m learning how to cook now. I changed the way that I interact with it, and I found it to be a much more positive and enjoyable experience.
JI: Any good recipes to share?
Bluestone: Recipes, not so much, but my favorite follow, I have to check the actual handle for you, I think it’s like, “men with a pot” or something, and it’s this account that goes out into the woods — this, like, beautiful mossy clearing in the woods — and just cooks things over the fire. They make jelly doughnuts over a fire. It’s the most peaceful, lovely thing you can ever watch. I highly recommend it.
JI: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Bluestone: The usual, covering scams and crime. They never stop happening. It’s a great beat.