Carolyn Stritch
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The inside story of one Instagrammer’s fake trip to Disneyland

Why did one influencer pretend to be 10 years younger, fake a trip to Disney, and edit herself a new nose? 

In the cold, gravelled backyard of her British home, 32-year-old Carolyn Stritch took a photo that would later accumulate over 18,000 Instagram likes. She wore a sunhat and sandals – even though it was March – and held out the skirt of her flowy summer dress. In the background were the red bricks and bent window blinds of her Sunderland home, with a patch of damp moss visible on the pavement outside.

The shot was vastly different from the glossy, stylised photos Stritch usually posts to her Instagram @theslowtraveler, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. For two and a half years, Stritch has posted pictures to the site and run her own personal blog, often being paid by brands to promote their products. “My images are all edited and styled to an extent,” she explains. Each is light, bright, clean, and – like most pictures posted by Instagram influencers – incredibly aspirational.

“I’m sure some people look at my account and it makes them feel bad,” Stritch says. “Look at my account and you might think I’m always either travelling or I’m lounging by the window with a coffee and a book.”

It was this that inspired the Instagrammer to lie.

The photo 18,000 people liked on Instagram didn’t look as though it was taken in Stritch’s backyard. She used Photoshop to cut out her body and imposed it on a picture of Disneyland California she found on the web. “I’ve taken myself off to California. There I am in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle – my crazy, self-indulgent 22nd birthday present to myself,” she captioned the picture. “Tomorrow I’ll be back home and it’ll be like it never even happened!”

Of course, it never did.

“I wanted my fictional narrative to challenge the way I portray myself online and the effects of this portrayal,” Stritch wrote in a blog post explaining her fake picture. She explained how she had “faked” other pictures in the past:

“I never read by the window – those windows, beautiful as they are, make my flat freezing cold. Sometimes that coffee cup I’m holding is empty. I suck in my stomach. I rearrange the furniture. I Photoshop out dirty marks made by bashing furniture off the walls.

“Is it bad to do those things? I don’t know.”

 

A post shared by Carolyn (@theslowtraveler) on

Since the app launched in 2010, Instagram has been accused of encouraging fakery. The social network’s filters have always made life look more magical than it really is, but the rise of influencers (people, like Stritch, who are paid to promote products to their followers) made things gradually faker. In October 2015, model Essena O’Neill called Instagram “contrived” and quit the site after rewriting the captions on her posts to explain the reality behind long photoshoots and brand deals. In May 2017, photographer Sara Melotti told the New Statesman about the “Instagram mafia”, a group of influencers who like each other’s pictures in order to seem popular.

Stritch’s faked Disney pic is perhaps most similar to a scandal involving blogger Amelia Liana last year. In July 2017, Liana was accused of Photoshopping other tourists from her pictures, with some critics even claiming she superimposed herself on to tourist sites. “All my imagery is actually shot at the time in the location I specify,” she said at the time. “I strive as far as possible to present images that have been shot using natural light and in real conditions.” Eagled-eyed followers noticed a flock of birds seemed to fly in the background of many of her pictures. Nowadays, hot air balloons are frequently seen in the background of her shots.

 

A post shared by Amelia Liana (@amelialiana) on

“I think we all have a shared responsibility to make social media better,” says Stritch, who reiterates that she faked the Disney picture in order to question her own practice, not others. Though a few of her followers asked how she managed to get a photo with no one else in shot, most simply admired the pic. “Wow amazing shot,” wrote one. Another: “This is so cool. Never seen Disneyland so empty before.” Multiple commenters used the word “magical”.

As part of the project, Stritch also faked her face. Via the photo-manipulation tool FaceApp, she made her face slimmer, brighter, and more flawless. “I was horrified when I saw my new face,” she says – her own mother didn’t question the image, assuming instead that her daughter had simply “gotten really good” at make-up.

Of course, exposing Instagram fakery is in itself now a solid Instagram PR trick. Instagrammers who take “real” pictures of themselves sans make-up, or explain in candid captions that their lives aren’t perfect, often gain publicity on the site. It’s a cynical news cycle, and one that so far seems to have come up with few answers on how to make social media a healthier place. Stritch’s fake pictures might not change the Instagram community – but she never wanted them to. “This project was about me questioning my own practice,” she says.

“I have to work, study, exercise, clean the bathroom, do all the stuff everybody else has to do. I feel all the same pressures my followers feel. I want people to know that.”

Stritch doesn’t know where the line is when it comes to Instagram fakery, and admits she's still figuring things out. “This project has thrown up more questions than it’s answered and it’s still something I’m trying to work out,” she says.

“It’s about trying to make work that’s both responsible and good.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Image: Getty
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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.