Picture: 123RF/SKDESIGN
Picture: 123RF/SKDESIGN

Caroline Calloway’s life in Cambridge was something akin to a mid-2000s romcom. An American student studying art history at a magical college where she falls in love with a nice Swedish boy called Oscar sounds like a movie many girls would pay to see.

It was a tale that was instead watched on Instagram, where Calloway would post whimsical photos and write convoluted descriptions detailing her life in a way that seemed clumsy yet charming. Her signature "authenticity" would amass her a clothing line, a $500,000 book deal and 800,000 fans, some of whom would be willing to pay to fly to England just to have dinner with her and her boyfriend.

Her deft handling of social media allowed her to create an empire — and a throng of satirical meme accounts where she was replaced by a Barbie — but it would also be her downfall.

An Adderall-fuelled meltdown, breakups, a lost book deal and a handful of already broken promises in her pocket, Calloway tried to stage a comeback this past December. She sold the promise of intimate creative workshops where she would "teach skills and talk about her life, and bring along goodies that included a free salad, notebook and stickers" at the cost of $165 a pop.

Instead, fans were told to bring their own sandwiches; were given an empty mason jar; and told to instead fly to her in New York because expecting her to attend events she had already sold them "was too hard".

She would be the centre of a viral Twitter feed and social media backlash that would have her cancel the tour citing that her "total inexperience with event planning, and greed [created] a situation where the details of the tour were ever-changing, preparation was inadequate, and the event did not match the description". Only to uncancel the tour 24 hours later so she could teach her followers "resilience" as well as creativity, while she sells T-shirts that call out her Twitter whistleblower.

Calloway’s fraudulent ineptitude has since landed her the label "the next Fyre Festival", a comparison with Billy McFarland, the posterchild and by-product of social media snake oil peddling and greedy self-interest.

Fyre Festival was a dream sold on social media, promising a "cultural moment created from a blend of music, art and food" in 2017, on a private island once owned by Pablo Escobar.

All it would take was a mob of social media influencers posting an orange square and a link to a video of supermodels frolicking on a beach for a music festival no-one had ever heard of, to sell out in 48 hours. They were promised luxury tents, private cabanas, a star-studded line-up, a gourmet chef and a treasure hunt for over a million dollars. Instead, hundreds of of would-be festivalgoers were stranded on a different island with no power, no entertainment, and nothing save a mattress in a rain-drenched disaster relief tent and a single cheese sandwich.

The Netflix documentary Fyre Festival: the greatest party that never happened, which became available in SA last week, shows exactly how co-founders McFarland and rapper Ja Rule were able to — in their words — "sell a pipe dream to your average loser". A sentiment that would send the former to jail for six years.

Such pipe dreams have now become a focus for regulatory boards the world over as they try to crack down on false authenticity in the ever-growing social media marketplace. As it stands, reports show that 70% of brands use influencers in their marketing, an industry that is worth $1bn in ad revenue, according to marketing agency Mediakix. James Nord, CEO of digital analytics company Fohr Card, estimates the overall influencer market could reach $5bn by 2020.

Though SA’s social media economy is still small in comparison to the rest of the world, celebrities and influencers are still paid between R5,000 and R10,000 per post. And we are not safe from social media scandals in our own backyard.

In early January TV presenter Nomuzi Mabena received a severe backlash after her participation in a VW and Drive Dry campaign where she posted a fake video of her being involved in a car crash while participating in an Instagram Live chat. Fans and followers were left traumatised and uncertain for 14 hours as to whether she was alive, before a statement was released that it was a hoax to raise awareness about drunk driving. Followers were livid, calling the stunt "distasteful", with #RoastNomuzi going viral soon after.

Stunts like this prove the need for clear parameters in social media endorsements. It is why SA’s Advertising Regulatory Board has proposed an advertising code of practice for social media. The guidelines, open for comment until February 24, demand that SA brands and influencers take more responsibility when dealing with the public and make their intentions and affiliations known. All posts that are paid for and associated with a brand would have to be clearly identifiable with appropriate hashtags such as #Ad or #Sponsored in the future.

"Social media advertising must not contain deceptive, false or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers or business practices. Messaging should be responsible and authentic," the draft reads.

"It was not part of my dream to be compared to a literal Caribbean island where people almost died," said Calloway last week on her uncancelled tour. But it appears Calloway’s followers are not the only ones that will demand "authenticity" in future.