All anyone could talk about a few weeks ago was Fyre Festival. Even though the infamous non-festival happened in April of 2017, both Netflix and Hulu released documentaries detailing the events of Fyre basically simultaneously; I couldn’t walk a step in my office after the docs dropped without hearing the name “Billy McFarland.”
Podcasters, news anchors and media outlets were discussing the intricacies of McFarland’s con for days, partly wildly dumbfounded but more so really into what was going through the Fyre team’s minds when all of it was going down. Was it truly intentional? Were they all delusional? Were the models in on it?
Talking about Fyre was kind of like talking about your favorite drama series, swapping theories with others who follow the program but still enjoying a comfortable amount of disconnect. Except this actually happened; real people were actually victimized.
Before McFarland, it was Anna Delvey, who scammed high-society New Yorkers out of millions of dollars and is hanging out at Rikers Island for the foreseeable future -- Shonda Rhimes is creating a Netflix show about her. Then it was Caroline Calloway, who preyed on the elusive art of “influencing” to get rich -- and caught -- quick. More recently, HBO is documenting Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of healthcare startup Theranos that was meant to develop a more streamlined blood test to detect disease earlier. “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” is out on March 18, and you know you’ll be all over it once you read up on her crimes.
McFarland, Delvey, Calloway and Holmes are very different people in very different industries -- but something about them made them nearly indifferent to what was going wrong in their endeavors, and they encouraged themselves to lie and fake out those close to them to make things happen. Even “Dirty John,” the podcast-turned-Bravo TV show, has been picked up by Netflix for a second season -- the drama is that good.
And we’re obsessed with watching it all unfold.
“What we like about stories about scammers, I think, is born of the place where envy meets outrage: It’s incredibly unfair, and definitely evil, but also, why didn’t I think of that?” Katie Heany said for The Cut. And, I mean, she’s not wrong.
Doesn’t everyone want to make mass amounts of money for little to no effort? Watching these con artists actually do it, knowing that -- scoff -- we would never, produces a kind of fascination, much like that which occurs when we watch reality television: Our lives will never look like that, but it’s top-tier entertainment when other people are wearing thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and flipping tables in public.
Likewise, we’re fascinated with how these people think of their hoaxes. According to Maria Konnikova, author of “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It...Every Time,” artists are called artists for a reason: they’re charismatic, and we become a little awestruck at their cunning.
“There’s something very inherently appealing about seeing how tricky people can be. It’s like, ‘Wow, look at what they were able to do. How cool is that?’ You have a grudging admiration for them,” she told Vox.
It also has a lot to do with schadenfreude, or the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.
It’s kind of an uncomfortable thing to think about, as we all like to assume that we’re empathetic and understanding people, but schadenfreude exists and, according to Tiffany Watt Smith, author of “Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune,” it’s a foundational reason for why we love scam stories -- whether we feel it toward the victims or the scammers. We want to see the cons get their comeuppance and watch justice get served. When we read about these events, the end of the story usually isn’t, “and the scammer got away with it.”
“It’s really exciting and pleasing when there’s a mistake made, or when there’s a failure, because these people appear capable of not doing any wrong,” Watt Smith said.
As far as the duped, since being wronged by a scammer is usually devoid of any kind of physical injury or violence, we don’t feel as much for the victims. The scammer will be front-page news, but you don’t hear much (or if you do, aren’t able to empathize with) those who lost money or assets. It’s another layer of schadenfreude, one where we think it’s kind of funny that these people got scammed.
“We really look down as a culture on the victims,” Konnikova (who also appeared in Hulu’s Fyre doc, “Fyre Fraud,” told The Cut. “We think they’re greedy, and they’re gullible.”
In the case of Debra Newell and “Dirty John,” it’s similar -- we think, “Well of course something bad happened, you met this guy online and rushed into your marriage. I would never be that naive.”
Konnikova said that part of what makes the scammers successful is this vulnerability of their victims, which especially worked for McFarland and Fyre Festival because of how steeped in its social media strategy it was.
“What con artists do is take advantage of people’s insecurities and show them a vision of the world that they want to believe in. That’s the essence of it, really. All of this social media influencer stuff, that’s exactly that. It’s like, ‘Let me show you how to be great,’” she said.
Heany likened Konnikova’s theory to her own perception of Fyre Fest.
“I, for instance, do not feel particularly sorry for the sad, young influencers who were briefly stranded on a Bahamian island to sleep in FEMA tents. because I think getting paid to hold objects on Instagram is dumb (unless anyone wants me to do so for them),” she said, “and it pleases me as a non-rich, non-model, non-22-year-old to see people in those categories humbled by having to fly coach and eat dry sandwiches out of Styrofoam.”
At the end of the day, it’s a two-for-one deal: Following the stories of scam artists make us feel superior to the naive, foolish victims while also satiating our craving for drama and near-otherworldly spectacle in what the fraudsters are doing.