Pin It
Get Rich or Lie Trying influencer economy
Illustration Marija Marc

How influencers became the scam artists of the digital age

Author Symeon Brown talks through his new book, Get Rich Or Lie Trying – a book about deceit, ‘cloutrage’ and aspiration on social media

A clip of Rihanna being interviewed has been doing the rounds recently. Asked, “What do you do on those days you don’t feel confident?” she replies, “Uhh, pretend? I mean why not, it’s either that or cry myself to sleep, who wants to do that?” This idea of pretence – of faking it until you make it – is at the heart of a new cutting exposé by Symeon Brown, Get Rich Or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy

Unlike Rihanna, though, who has unquestionably made it, the book examines the fallout of influencing and the murkier side of an industry built on an inconvenient truth of scamming, vanity, and unattainable lifestyles. It’s a book “which is led by stories about the people in this economic system who aren’t the winners,” according to Brown, who zooms in on the world of pyramid schemes, botched plastic surgery, Twitch swatting, dropshipping, and fast fashion. It’s VidCon, OnlyFans, Forex, Deliveroo, and Khloe Kardashian, and explores how, in an attempt to hustle our way up the economic chain and secure the bag, it can bite us in the (surgically-enhanced) bum.

Social media is the most exploitative frontier of late-stage capitalism, Brown says, and he outlines a shift where the ruthless values of Wall Street have filtered down into a young market desperate for financial success and freedom. Brown is a news reporter for Channel 4, and the book finds him travelling to LA to meet a Twitch streamer pandering to alt-right viewers for money, and migrants working in Fashion Nova’s filthy downtown districts. The US, after all, is a nation of salesmen, and the shadow of Trump, who Brown describes as “effectively an influencer” looms large – when you have the ultimate scammer in the White House, what does that tell the rest of the world?

With the internet now the primary mode of wealth creation, the book also references the slightly galling stat that more than one-fifth of children now name ‘influencing’ as their dream job. While it examines well-known pyramid schemes (‘multi-level marketing’ companies) like LuLaRoe and Avon, the emerging markets of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, which are bolstered by hype, can often be scams packaged as get-rich-quick schemes. Below, we spoke to Brown about “cloutrage”, the Californication of the world, and whether or not the influencing bubble will finally burst.

Where did the idea for the book stem from? How and why did you begin looking into influencer culture? 

Symeon Brown: I studied economics at university, and have always been interested in how people live. Growing up in Tottenham, which at the time was a multiracial but socially disadvantaged area, a few years ago I started to notice all these young people from the ends – Tottenham, Hackney, Brixton, from the estates – suddenly shifted their aesthetics and personas. They went from wearing hoodies to three-piece suits, they were driving sports cars and would carry themselves like hedge fund managers. I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ I found out that they were part of a shadow economy that signed up young people to bet on super dubious platforms – what in real terms were no-win betting products. These people were building huge followers off the back of the identity of traders, sometimes they even managed to dupe journalists. That led to me looking at the world of Instagram, people mimicking the Wolf of Wall Street and the meme culture surrounding it.

How did that bring you to the wider – global – scope of the digital influencer economy? 

Symeon Brown: It brought me to how working-class people had consumed the idea of wanting to participate in capitalism. [I also noticed] a renaissance in pyramid schemes online. The way they present is often very gendered, or racialised. Many target women, sometimes young women who’ve just had children, promising they can work from home, multi-level marketing companies like LuLaRoe. Young people have never been able to see so much wealth around them. It’s so accessible – they feel like they should be wealthy and if they’re not, then that’s a character flaw. At the same time, there’s precarity and a squeeze on real wages. I feel like a lot of stories about influencer culture are told by people who have won; a blue-chip YouTuber, a Love Island contestant. But if you really want to understand the system, you have to look at the people who are losing.

“Young people have never been able to see so much wealth around them. It’s so accessible – they feel like they should be wealthy and if they’re not, then that’s a character flaw” – Symeon Brown

Why do you think ambition can turn so quickly into deceit, and why are so many people willing to mislead their audience or followers?

Symeon Brown: A lot of the time these platforms reward and incentivise lies. Adverts have always done that, but obviously it’s far easier to regulate a TV or billboard advert than millions and millions of individuals. The issue now is that if a platform, like Twitter, incentivises you to be angry, and if you tweet something that’s going to get other people angry, that could generate attention. If you can monetise that, or you’re rewarded for anger or dishonesty, then people will just reproduce that.

On social media it feels like the US’s culture is increasingly seeping into ours, and that’s something you tap into in the book. Do you think American ideals are to some extent powering this new economy? 

Symeon Brown: One of the ideas in my book is the Californisation of youth culture. In America, there’s widespread inequality, but there’s no class, because they believe anyone can make it. The American dream is ubiquitous, even though it’s flawed and we know it to be mythology. But to some extent there’s more porosity to the possibilities. With globalisation and the post-Thatcherite world, it’s really about conceding political, economic, and social-cultural power to America: whether we like it or not, those American ideas are here and they’re here in great force. When I interviewed people for the book, some were major TikTok influencers, and were like, ‘Your followers wanna see you in LA, this is where all the big influencers are’. Hollywood’s there, celebrities are there, the glamour is there. People want to consume an aspirational product. But then the money behind the attention economy, people reaping the rewards as investors, engineers, the creatives, are predominantly in Silicon Valley, San Francisco. So you have this very small part of the world literally dictating our culture, everywhere.

Your book also touches on influencers wearing activists’ clothing, mentioning people like Chidera Eggerue and Florence Given.

Symeon Brown: What happens in that world is you have what’s called ‘cloutrage’, generating clout from outrage. Important, valid social movements can become appropriated by influencers who don’t always entirely get the issues. They become the loudest people in the room and then, suddenly, you’re misrepresenting important discourses. It enables alternative narratives to arise, which undermines the validity of important movements. I spoke a little bit about what I saw taking place in Black Lives Matter, where an important civil rights movement was creating content that was removed from real action or understanding, leading to misrepresentation and blowback, because that was what the algorithm demands.

This went down after your book was finished, but the discourse around Molly-Mae’s ‘we all have the same 24 hours in a day’ comments feels important to bring up.

Symeon Brown: I imagine Molly-Mae would have been surprised at the backlash because this is the dominant orthodoxy of our time: you have to hustle. It’s up to you as an individual. It was that idea that was at the heart of all the stories my book is telling: the age of individualism. I think the critical reception she got was useful in terms of, let’s look at this idea: a lot of people believe it, so let’s talk about that. Because we do know that that is not the truth. Everyone knows how [Molly-Mae] made it, and there was a lot of good fortune involved. Being self-made is a complete illusion, nobody is self-made. But there’s a belief that you can be, and that was what I was keen to really investigate.

“I imagine Molly-Mae would have been surprised at the backlash, because this is the dominant orthodoxy of our time: you have to hustle” – Symeon Brown

Where do we go from here? Do you see the influencer bubble bursting any time soon?

Symeon Brown: I don’t think we’re anywhere near the peak. COVID was a huge engine of digital migration, but we still mostly consume things offline, and increasingly spend more of our social life online. If you have a social account – I mean, my final chapter’s called “We Are All Influencers”, right? Affiliate links are going to be something that more people do. Even the kind of language we use now, everything becomes a monetary function. People misunderstand the idea of ‘emotional labour’, which is where if you’re a service worker, you have to be nice to your guests. Emotional labour is not your friend saying, ‘I feel down’, and you being like, ‘I’m gonna have to bill you to listen to you’. It’s this idea that suddenly everything has to be monetised and commodified. You can’t do hobbies if they don’t make you money; people constantly pandering to brands: all these things are an extension of that. It’s the result of a generation born in a media age. We’re all inadvertently becoming media workers in some form.

Symeon Brown’s Get Rich Or Lie Trying is released by Atlantic Books on March 3 – pre-order it here