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Appearing wealthy on social media has become its own industry – Maclean's

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“Hey yo, rich boy check,” says a male voice.

A violin plays the first few notes of Luigi Boccherini’s Minuetto as a well-dressed, well-coiffed teenager flashes images from his lavish lifestyle: crystal chandeliers, Lamborghinis, indoor pools.

Welcome to the #richboycheck hashtag on TikTok, a social media platform popular with teenagers, where the apparently wealthy “flex”—slang for showing off your wealth—while others mercilessly mock them. On display are wads of cash, Rolexes and closets stacked with designer sneakers. (Also on trend: satirically writing “GUCCI” onto a piece of paper and sticking it to your hoodie.)

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Whether they are being gawked at, idolized or made fun of, there is a clear fascination with the hyper-connected nouveau riche—the often-youthful Instagrammers who let you see inside their mansions; the YouTubers who let you peer inside their closets.

READ: Has social media become a full-time job for teen girls?

But if Instagram is your lens on the world outside your bedroom or neighbourhood, you are viewing a warped reality. A project called Inequaligram, run by the City University of New York, looked at 7.5 million Instagram posts shared in Manhattan in 2014 and concluded that wealthy neighbourhoods were dramatically over-represented in posts, including those from people who lived in poorer parts of the city.

At a time of soaring income inequality in North America, as more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few, the hive mind seems to have reconfirmed that affluence, however elusive, is the ideal. That it is better to filter out poverty. That the “vagabond shoes” and “little town blues” are easily swapped out for “king of the hill, top of the list,” to channel Frank Sinatra.

Multi-billion-dollar industries are built around the “influence” peddled by popular online figures whose followers have never laid eyes upon them in real life and who almost always appear independently wealthy. Some are explicitly, openly fake: an uncanny-valley “robot” called Lil Miquela has 1.9 million Instagram followers, to whom she recently recommended the Samsung Galaxy S20.

Instagram post from @lilmiquela, promoting Samsung Galaxy (@lilmiquela/instagram)

Instagram post from @lilmiquela, promoting Samsung Galaxy (@lilmiquela/instagram)

It’s hardly surprising that people will go to lengths for a slice of that pie. So what does the modern wannabe do? It isn’t hard to imagine the rationale. If everybody who is online broadcasts the best version of themselves, why not go a step further and look like the person you wish you were? Why not drop a few hundred bucks and feel like a Kardashian for half an hour? If you take a picture, it’ll last even longer.

For people who want to take a shortcut, the concept of “fake it ’til you make it” leads to heavy-handed Photoshopping at one end of the spectrum, the temporary rental of luxury goods, services and venues somewhere in the middle and—driven by insecurity, narcissism or gullibility—pyramid schemes and criminal fraud at the other.

READ: The Canadian YouTube star with a day job at the federal government

But a dive into flex culture suggests something deeper is going on. No matter their motives, people are selling some version of themselves. Their brands, put on the altar of a fickle internet, are a reflection of their innermost desires—or at the very least their perceptions of success.

Social media is a hall of funhouse mirrors, an endless glittering Midtown Manhattan. People stretch and distort themselves. They exaggerate and inflate. If they’re not careful, they can have a hard time finding the exit.

“The logic behind it, bro? This faking it until you make it thing? It’s a serious thing, bro. It works, bro, for some reason.”

That’s what YouTuber ChristianAdamG concluded after a social experiment last spring. He tried faking wealth on Instagram by using Photoshop—putting himself in a private jet, driving an exotic car, standing next to celebrities—and, at the end of a week of twists and turns, landed a couple of thousand new followers. His video documenting that experience has more than 5.6 million views.

YouTuber ChristianAdamG posting a before and after of how he faked wealth on his social channel (ChristianAdamG/YouTube)

YouTuber ChristianAdamG posting a before and after of how he faked wealth on his social channel (ChristianAdamG/YouTube)

There’s a cottage industry of how-to guides that share tips for looking rich on the ’gram, like a video titled “10 Ways to Look Expensive on a Budget” (1.5 million views) from a YouTube account called the School of Affluence. Most of the advice doesn’t require you to be a gifted photo editor. Just to be bold. For example, visit open houses to look like you live in a swanky place. When rapper Lil Tay emerged as an internet star at the age of nine, she was branded as a Louis Vuitton-wearing L.A. rich kid. But really, her mother was a Vancouver realtor with access to a penthouse.

Some advice is off-the-wall—take a toilet seat and make it look like you’re sitting by an airplane window. But some of it makes sense. Want to seem like you can afford a Hermes bag? Try one on at the store and take a picture. Just don’t buy it. Want to seem like you dine at high-end restaurants? Post Yelp reviews, with a #richkidsofinstagram hashtag on your posts for good measure.

Those willing to spend can pull off the appearance of luxury without owning a Rolls Royce. In Vancouver a Porsche Convertible will put you back more than $600 for a 24-hour rental. But won’t you feel like a million bucks? There are penthouses on Airbnb. Designer outfits from Rent the Runway. Private jet companies that will let you pose on the leather seats, even if the plane doesn’t take off.

With your foot in the door as a perceived influencer—it helps, by the way, to be beautiful—it is possible to join a strange ecosystem of social media users who collaborate with each other, and with businesses, offline. Influencers attend real events as special celebrity guests, basking in each other’s influential glow, putting on a show for thousands of gawkers whose susceptibility to their glowy influence is almost impossible to measure.

Justin Plosz, 36, hosted an infamous party at a sprawling mansion last June in Anmore, B.C., in the hills above Coquitlam. It was billed as a launch for his public relations business and a birthday party for his friend.

Neighbours and local politicians were incensed after sports cars and helicopters disrupted the town. One of the helicopter pilots was a convicted drug dealer, the Vancouver Sun reported, and an ambulance was called to the party after a suspected drug overdose occurred.

Plosz, a former used-car salesman from Saskatchewan, has no regrets. He got some new clients, and besides, the party paid for itself. “The expenses never really came from me. A lot of the companies were just happy to be there. They showed up, they put up promo tents, they brought beautiful girls, backdrops, everything. So there was not a lot of overhead,” he says.

Another “crazy” mansion party is in the works for Toronto this June. Plosz is branding it the “Exclusive Mansion Helicopter Show 2020” and is inviting Instagram influencers to sell sponsorship space on posts that advertise their attendance. His dreams of bigger and better stunts include “a military tank blowing something up” or “arriving at a crazy boat party in a military submarine.”

Like anyone on Instagram, Plosz, who has the requisite photos with yachts and sports cars, is projecting a highly curated version of himself. “It’s a character. It’s what people want to see, so then that’s what you show them,” he says. “People want to be entertained; they don’t want to be educated.”

Instagram post from @liltay (@liltay/instagram)

Instagram post from @liltay (@liltay/instagram)

If your “character” brings you success, it’s easy to feel positive, Jennifer Shapka says when I tell her about how Plosz sees his own schtick. “I wonder though, had things not worked out, whether he would be feeling so positive, and able to separate himself so comfortably from his online persona.”

Shapka, who teaches developmental psychology at the University of British Columbia, says there’s no academic research yet on why people take pains to flex online. But she thinks it’s a combination of exposure to celebrity lifestyles and the knowledge that ordinary people, like never before, can use online personas as a vehicle for success.

“There are so many YouTube-famous, Instagram-famous people now who were just regular kids who somehow made it. So anyone can do it,” says Shapka. “It’s really infiltrated, this idea that fame and fortune is just a few clicks away.”

It’s also perfectly normal for kids to try out different identities as they grow up, she notes. “But when we add in the technology and we add in social media, you can try out idealized identities of yourself, ones that you think are going to draw friends and enhance your popularity. It is really just sharing what you think people want to see.”

People who lean into inauthentic online identities when they’re young may start to “feel fake all the time,” Shapka adds, “so I would worry about their development in terms of being able to form relationships. All your relationships would feel false. Your sense of self would feel false.”

Eleftherios Soleas, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who is researching motivation, has studied the phenomenon of graduate students using social media to flex—at least, to boast about their success, if not their Chanel outfits. On social media, academic peers see the glass of Prosecco a successful graduate student raises in celebration, not the late nights they spent rewriting articles. And because those onlookers are comparing themselves to someone else’s highly curated best moments, it makes them feel inadequate. “They’re drinking pulpless orange juice,” Soleas says of social media users. “All of the sugar and none of the fibre.”

Trying to appear successful on social media could be a way for people to feel better about themselves, Soleas says. “If you look like you’re doing it, you feel like you’re doing it.” Or they may simply enjoy the rush of positive feelings that can come from likes or comments.

Before launching into guidance on how to find designer look-alike fabrics, YouTuber Mirella Derungs, wearing flawless makeup and a glittering choker, gets right to the heart of it in a video titled “How to Look Rich AF!” (“AF” being web slang for “as f–k”).

“I notice people like to follow people who look rich, who look as if they have their sh– together, who look as if they know what they’re doing in life,” she says earnestly, “who have goals and are working on something. People just like to follow successful people. Because it makes them feel inspired.”

Where’s the blurry line between paying to enjoy a luxurious trip and paying to brand yourself as the type of person who can afford to hang out in hangars and pose in the wilderness with a chopper in the background? Either way, you’re probably taking selfies.

For people aspiring to build careers on the strength of their Instagram popularity in an influencer industry worth some $13 billion annually, that line doesn’t necessarily exist. Plenty of businesses are ready to cash in on the advertising potential.

Over the last three or four years, Sky Helicopters, a heli-adventure and tour company in Vancouver, has partnered with influencers, sometimes offering discounts or freebies in exchange for public recommendations to followers. “It’s hard to put a monetary number to the business that you get from that,” says George Lacny, the company’s marketing director. “It’s just one of many different avenues that any business today has to understand.”

Figuring out who is legitimate (and not just looking for a free vacation) comes down to “good detective work,” says Lacny, like checking for suspicious patterns in likes and comments. That’s important because some aspiring influencers cross into actual fraud.

People can buy fake audiences for their accounts in the range of US$10-15 per 1,000 followers. A 2019 study from CHEQ AI and the University of Baltimore predicted that influencers who bought followers or engagements from bot farms would swindle advertisers out of US$1.5 billion this year.

Fellow internet users do a good job outing and shaming people who are fabricating their wealth. The New York Times reported last fall that Instagram account @BallerBusters was finding and revealing fraudulent influencers, or “#FlexOffenders,” for a large audience. Instagram and TikTok comments are rife with accusations of fakery.

Anna Sorokin returns from a recess during her trial at New York State Supreme Court, in New York, Monday, April 22, 2019. Sorokin, who claimed to be a German heiress, is on trial on grand larceny and theft of services charges. (Richard Drew/CP)

Anna Sorokin returns from a recess during her trial at New York State Supreme Court, in New York, April 22, 2019. (Richard Drew/CP)

But sometimes it becomes a police matter. Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, was convicted in New York last year of theft and grand larceny for manipulating banks, hotels, a jet operator, restaurants and individuals out of more than US$200,000 using a fake identity she created online. In one case, she emptied out a hotel minibar, consuming $6 Diet Cokes and asking that the fridge be refilled. In another, she dined-and-dashed on four glasses of wine, two smoked salmon sandwiches and a fruit salad. The Russian immigrant, who was posing as a German heiress, was sentenced to at least four years in prison.

During his opening statement, Sorokin’s lawyer Todd Spodek said there’s a bit of Anna in everyone. “Through her sheer ingenuity, she created the life that she wanted for herself,” he said. “Anna was not content with being a spectator, but wanted to be a participant. Anna didn’t wait for opportunities, Anna created opportunities. Now we can all relate to that.”

Spodek invoked Frank Sinatra and the dream of climbing to the top of the heap: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!”


This article appears in print in the April 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Flex culture for rent.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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Douglas Todd: Ethnic media reveals tough realities in migrant communities – Vancouver Sun

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Opinion: Hundreds of multi-lingual media outlets are the “canary in the coal mine,” offering warnings about everything from foreign interference to psychological stresses on newcomers

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Canada could head off foreign influence and intimidation by monitoring the country’s proliferating ethnic media, according to a new report.

Hundreds of foreign-language newspapers, radio shows and TV stations in Canada offer revealing insights into the hopes and tensions experienced by more than eight million migrants and their offspring, says a study titled Diaspora Dynamics: Ethnic Media and Foreign Conflict in Multicultural Canada.

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Canada’s ethnic media is “the canary in the coal mine,” offering warnings about everything from foreign interference to psychological stresses on newcomers, whether from Iran, China, Russia, India, South Korea, the Middle East or beyond, says Andrés Machalski, president of Multilingual International Media Research (MIREMS).

But governments aren’t taking advantage of the fertile resource. Their lack of understanding of the powerful role played by ethnic media has “enabled Chinese and Indian agents to (impact) public opinion … and provided an open door to homeland subversion of Canadian democracy,” says Machalski.

MIREMS’ 54-page report maintains the media outlets are invaluable for understanding what is going on in scores of diaspora communities.

The report goes so far as to suggest many newcomers suffer from anxiety and depression associated with “complex PTSD” as they try to navigate news and views from their homelands with their new lives in Canada.

Although many of the views expressed in ethnic media are predictable, there is some range of opinion, says the report by MIREMS, which tracks more than 800 media outlets in 30 languages in Canada and worldwide.

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The discussion paper includes special sections on what the ethnic media says about China, the Russian-Ukraine war, the murder of a Sikh militant in B.C., and the Israel-Hamas war.

Here are some highlights:

Beijing’s infiltration of Chinese-language media in Canada

Jonathan Manthorpe, author of Claws Of The Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, wrote last week in The Vancouver Sun that one of the most “venomous” activities of the Chinese Communist Party is the way it controls “almost all Chinese-language media” in Canada.

“The result of this is most contemptible among new Canadians from Mainland China. This stranglehold blocks their exposure to Canadian society and values, and sustains CCP control over their lives,” Manthorpe wrote.

The MIREMS report does not go so far. But it does capture how Chinese-language newspaper and broadcast outlets, aimed at 1.7 million Chinese-Canadians, more often than not toe the Communist Party line on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the detention of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou, and China’s interference in Canadian elections.

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Since many ethnic Chinese writers and editors in Canada fear they are being spied on by agents from Mainland China, the report says they often “shy away from controversial topics to protect their interests.” Still, MIREMS suggests a degree of independent reporting can be found.

Russian-Canadian media silent on the war against Ukraine

While the government-controlled media in Russia stridently promotes the devastating invasion of Ukraine, Machalski says that is not the case in the Russian-language media in Canada. “It is largely silent.”

Russian-Canadian media are significantly more “balanced” than those in the homeland — and are occasionally even sympathetic to Ukraine, says the report.

Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian and Polish media outlets in Canada serve a potential audience of more than two million people. If Ottawa had been learning from them, Machalski said, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would likely have avoided the embarrassment of inviting a Ukrainian veteran who had fought for the Nazis to be honoured by Ukraine’s visiting prime minister, Volodymyr Zelensky.

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Less emphasis on “World War III” in Jewish and Arab media in Canada

The mainstream media in Canada is generally more fair and nuanced than the diaspora media in covering most issues, including the Israel-Hamas war, says the report. But there can be surprises.

While Jewish-Canadian and Arab-Canadian outlets mostly contribute to polarization over the war in Gaza, Machalski, who is from Argentina, says there is at least not much talk about “how this is the start of World War III” — a theme that can emerge when mainstream outlets cover angry street protests.

MIREMS
The MIREMS report concludes it is psychologically disturbing for many members of Canada’s diaspora populations to be buffeted by drastically contrasting messages from media outlets. (Illustration: Cover of Diaspora Dynamics: Ethnic Media and Foreign Conflict in Multicultural Canada.) sun

South Asian media more open, and feisty

There has long been a range of opinions expressed in the various multi-language outlets serving South Asian-Canadians, a potential audience of almost two million.

Whether serving the country’s large Sikh or Hindu populations, media outlets are now fixated on how Canada’s diplomatic relations with India have been impacted by last year’s murder in B.C. of Khalistani separatist Hardip Singh Nijjar.

Sikh-oriented media outlets largely condemn India’s government, supporting Trudeau’s allegation that Indian agents could have been involved. On the other hand, Hindu-oriented outlets tend to accuse Trudeau of pandering to Sikh militants.

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All in all, the MIREMS report concludes with the perceptive theory that it is psychologically disturbing for members of Canada’s sizeable diaspora populations, many of whom experience dual identities, to be buffeted by drastically contrasting messages from different media outlets.

“The constant exposure to homeland conflicts through ethnic media on one hand, and the mainstream media on the other, can be traumatic for immigrants, who find themselves caught between their past and present lives,” says the report.

“The coverage of ongoing conflicts such as those in Ukraine, India and the Middle East might trigger symptoms akin to Complex PTSD, where the stress is prolonged and repetitive.

“This form of psychological stress is complicated by immigrants’ efforts to integrate into Canadian society while maintaining ties to their country of origin, leading to a unique set of mental health challenges.”

dtodd@postmedia.com

Recommended from Editorial

  1. Despite images of Canadian Sikh protesters outraged at India, observers say the Sikh population is “not monolithic” on Khalistan or other issues. (Photo: Surrey mourners carry the casket of slain Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 25, 2023.)

    Douglas Todd: Trudeau’s defiance of India ‘killing two birds with one stone’

  2. Ukrainians are defiant in part because they have a stronger identity — and are more devoted to Eastern Orthodoxy — than Russians. Here, Ukraine's flag flutters at half-mast in the war-torn Donetsk region.

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  3. Blythe Irwin, who monitors the ethnic language media across Canada, with a selection of papers.

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Ontario wants meeting with social media execs to battle classroom distractions

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Ontario’s education minister says he wants to sit down with social media executives to work out how to reduce distractions and enforce bans on certain apps in the classroom.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce will table legislation on Monday designed to give the government powers aimed at cracking down on privacy issues, cyberbullying and age-appropriate internet use.

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As part of the legislation, the government is planning to meet with executives at major apps like Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok to work out how to cut distractions.

The province wants help from the companies themselves with issues like students sneaking through age verification or getting around blocks on the apps in places like school WiFi networks.

“I look forward to that conversation and I believe that they’re willing to have that conversation in good faith, recognizing we have powers through the legislation, or we will have should the legislation pass, possible authorities to further protect children,” Lecce told reporters.

Those powers, if voted through, would allow the minister to implement regulations related to social media, although details have not been made public.

Ontario recently announced it would be banning access to all social media on school WiFi networks and school-owned devices. That news came alongside a strict reduction on when phones can be used by students.

Lecce’s plan to sit down with social media companies comes as several school boards in the province are taking companies behind Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok to court.

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School boards, including Toronto District School Board and Ottawa-Carleton, are seeking $4 billion in damages, alleging some app products have rewired how children think, behave and learn and that educators and schools have been left to “manage the fallout.”

The lawsuit has not been publicly supported by the Ford government and Lecce said he is taking a “different approach” from the school boards in dealing with social media distraction.

“We believe social media companies have a role too, working with the government to get this right so that we focus our classrooms on academics,” Lecce said. “We get the distractions out of class.”

Other regulations the government said it is planning could include “age-appropriate standards for software standards” for devices students use at school like laptops and rules to ensure student data isn’t sold.

“The evolving online world provides many opportunities for children’s education and growth but there are risks to their privacy and the collection and use of their personal information,” Todd McCarthy, Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery, said Thursday.

“Our government wants our children to have a healthy, safe and age-appropriate digital experience when engaging with public sector organizations like schools which is why we are safeguarding their best interests by putting guardrails in place to better protect them.”

Along with meeting social media executives, the government said it plans to consult school boards, parent groups and law enforcement as it creates the regulations.

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Media speculation about shooting at Drake’s mansion ‘irresponsible,’ writer says

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A security guard at Drake’s mansion in Toronto was badly injured in a drive-by shooting on Tuesday, police say. The shooting happened amid an ongoing musical beef between Drake and Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. But David Dennis Jr., a senior writer at Andscape, says there’s no indication Lamar had anything to do with the shooting and that there’s a racial component to speculation that it’s linked to the feud.

 

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