The public’s first exposure to Fyre Festival were orange squares posted by influencers in social media. Fast forward two years and the organiser is in jail, lawsuits abound and 2 documentaries examine how the whole thing turned from a dream weekend into a raging dumpster fire. One of the many questions the fiasco has raised is: what accountability should influencers who promoted the event be held to?

Fyre Festival started out as a promotional event to showcase an innovative site which made booking entertainment easier, faster and more affordable (AirBnB for talent). When you watch Fyre : The Greatest Party That Never Happened, it’s apparent the promotion rapidly grew, eclipsed and, ultimately, swallowed the platform it was showcasing.

Influencer marketing through social media (particularly Instagram) was a huge part of this process. The campaign was incredibly successful, turning hundreds of millions of impressions into ticket sales. The rest is history: lots of sizzle but no steak, as festival goers experienced a weekend of chaos and disappointment brought about by the complete and utter inability of the organisers to deliver.

When the lawsuits started, one of them was aimed at the influencers.

Part of the argument goes along the lines that they knew what they had promised would not be delivered, yet they did nothing to warn the ticket holders they had shilled to. It’s interesting to look at this through the filter of South Africa’s recent Advertising Regulatory Board’s new draft for social media. The intent is very clear: honest, transparent marketing. The guideline’s intro states:

“This document serves to provide a clear set of rules around Social Media Marketing to ensure the protection of consumers and the promotion of ethical conduct by brand marketers and their representatives across all social media platforms and activities.”

Basically, make a reasonable effort to ensure the person viewing said creative KNOWS it’s advertising. That’s the transparency. They clearly didn’t live up to that.
Moving on.

The second part is not saying something you know isn’t true. An influencer is held to similar standards of truthfulness that brands are:

“Social Media advertising must not contain deceptive, false or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers or business practices. Messaging should be responsible and authentic.”

These waters are far more muddy. The influencers would have to be able to prove they weren’t aware of the circumstances.

Lastly, the guide holds the brand accountable for what the influencer does:

“The brand is responsible for the following: Provide the influencer with the required information for the influencer to endorse the product/service with sufficient understanding of it. A brand should never mislead the influencer with the objective of having the influencer write an overly positive recommendation.”

If an influencer knowingly promotes something false, they’re fraudulent. Also straightforward. But what happens when they suspect something but can’t prove it? Are they deceivers or deceived? What are their legal duties if they find out they have been mislead by a brand? How THAT plays out is going to have consequences for influencer marketing in a big way.

Fyre is a warning of what happens when ethics are left out of the media equation.

The influencers’ own brands have been damaged by this situation. These consequences are the culmination of their decisions: their due diligence, their choice to take the money and post, or break off the relationship, or publicly warn their followers that the dream they were selling was more than a sales pitch; it was an outright lie.

It’s easy to make judgements in hindsight; in the midst of the chaos, nothing would have been as clear as it is in the constructed narrative of a documentary. Returning to the ARB draft, it’s plain the intent is to prevent a scenario like Fyre. The regulators want to protect consumers from bad actors.

If influencers wish to grow their industry, they need to align their own behaviours with these goals or risk an ever escalating regulatory clash.
And that’s a blaze no-one wants to have to put out.