If you’re unfamiliar with who Caroline Calloway is, and why the story of her broken friendship with ghostwriter Natalie Beach has raised so many questions about authenticity and social media ethics, here’s a brief summary of what happened.
On Tuesday, The Cut published an article by Beach about her ongoing toxic relationship with influencer Caroline Calloway. Calloway has long been a hot topic in the world of social media, most recently drawing criticism for selling $165 tickets to her followers for a doomed, non-existent meet-and-greet tour that imploded in a Fyre-Festival-style cloud of deceit.
Once a fawned-over influencer with legions of seemingly highly-engaged followers, Calloway is now a pariah marked with the label “scammer” after more than one extremely public fall from grace.
In her article, Beach claims that “scammer” Calloway built her entire Instagram persona on a lie. Calloway claimed her initial rapid growth was authentic, but Beach says it came from buying tens of thousands of followers and boosting engagement with paid ads made to look like normal posts.
Beach’s largest claim is that Calloway took advantage of her skills as a ghostwriter for her posts and even her memoir, fooling followers for years and later backing out of a book deal worth $375K. Though Calloway is the one with almost a million followers, Beach was the one editing and writing the lengthy narrative captions Calloway was known for, as well as the memoir pages that never made it to press.
But this scandal raises a larger question beyond the salacious “she-said, she-said” narrative.
In this age where an influencer’s persona can be crafted, created, curated, and sold, how can consumers protect themselves from influencers who’ve been scamming them, sometimes for years?
Unfortunately, under pressure to perform, many profiles have inflated their numbers by buying fake followers to secure coveted brand partnerships. Calloway is a perfect example of someone who built their presence on a house of cards by purchasing fake followers. Social media platforms have been quietly taking measures to eliminate bots and fake followers for quite some time now. The results are shocking, sometimes dropping follower numbers for huge accounts (many that display the coveted blue checkmark by their name) by over a million.
It’s more important than ever that brands and consumers alike begin to pay more attention to authenticity metrics. Some influencer marketing platforms are now able to calculate how authentic the makeup of an influencer’s audience is by looking at historical data. Fully probing and analyzing metrics like engagement, reach, and saturation before choosing to collaborate with a creator is all part of the larger picture of the future of influencer marketing ethics.
Brands and viewers should also make sure influencers are consistently abiding by influencer advertising laws. Posts that are created in collaboration with a brand should always have the tags #ad or #sponsored clearly visible to viewers.
There has been a palpable shift in social media culture where content stealing used to be prevalent. Whether it be a photo re-posted without permission, stolen jokes leading to losses of huge brand partnerships as in the case of Jerry Media, or as in Calloway’s case, captions written by another author without compensation or credit, is, in plain terms, plagiarism. And if plagiarized work is being used to compel viewers, ethical issues concerning consumer trust arise. If measures aren’t taken to prevent plagiarism from happening, the most valuable commodity that the social media industry can offer is lost, and that is: influence.
The more that scandals like Caroline Calloway and the Fyre Festival occur, the less confidence the public has in social media as a credible platform. It’s the job of marketers and influencers alike to practice transparency and to protect the integrity of shared content to make sure public trust isn’t damaged beyond repair.