Last month, 28-year-old veteran YouTuber Gabbie Hanna did what most Influencers tend to do in April—she went to Coachella and documented her luxurious adventure on her Instagram. She posted daily photographs of herself adorned in colorful wigs, fashionable fits and V.I.P wristbands in various corners of the festival grounds: she posed in front of a small stage, hung out underneath the famous ferris wheel, and shielded herself from the dessert dust on the balcony of her Airbnb.
She received an average of 500,000 likes on each photo, the kind of attention usually reserved for nearly nude selfies, and her comments were littered with ebullient praise for her adventurous looks and envy for her too-cool-for-school lifestyle. A minutiae of the population, however, thought it looked too good to be true, and theorized in the comments that she somehow fabricated all of the images for a forthcoming YouTube video.
They were correct.
The trip was faked. Within days Hanna had posted a video titled, “I Faked Going To Coachella...” explaining how she got away with it, chronicling her extensive, expensive, time consuming exercise of scouting shoot locations, counterfeiting passes, Photoshopping scenery, investing in costumes, and posting each shot at just the right moment. As of publishing this piece, the video has 3.7 million views.
Instagram photos are already so engineered and stylized via FaceTune and AirBrush, it makes it easy to go one step further and fake an image entirely. So easy that, on Instagram and YouTube, the ‘fake trip’ has become its own genre, with its own set of rules: a series of lavish party pics followed by a video or post with a “big reveal.”
Even Hanna claimed that the purpose of the video was meta-critique of the state of Instagram. Towards the end of the video, in her “final thoughts” section, she said:
“I did feel kind of weird and guilty doing this because I don’t feel comfortable lying even if it is a harmless, however elaborate, prank. I did feel bad. I’m really sorry if you guys feel duped... I think that’s kind of a given is how easy it is to fake things on social media, and that was the purpose of this whole thing in the first place...
Social media, for the most part, is just a very curated and manipulated version of reality. Just don’t base your life off of the few posts a week from your favorite influencer living this glamorous, amazing, colorful, saturated, hip, trendy, amazing life because the whole time I was living my best life at Coachella, I was really, uh, for the most part, sitting in this editing chair.”
Of course, posting the video wasn’t a purely noble exercise. Hanna got content out of the deal, both on her Instagram and in a 23-and-a-half minute long, video that followed, which outlined the specifics of her prank. And, compared to Hanna’s actual travels—like 2014's “ROAD TRIP FROM HELL (with ALX JAMES),” (2.2 million views), 2015's “NYC MEETUP AND AIRPLANE NIGHTMARES,” (790,000 views), and November 2018's “I WORKED MY FIRST JOB FOR A DAY!,” (1.5 million views)—the trickery provided more attention then actually taking a trip.
Consider fake trips an extension of the YouTube’s partiality to prank videos. These videos perform well because they function like video cliffhangers and engage viewers in the drama of deceit. Will my fave get caught? How did they get away with it? And, why on earth are they doing this?
According to TubeFilter, YouTube first recognized the rise of prank videos in 2013, noting that “the top 10 creators in the space” were pranksters that “had clocked roughly 3.5 billion views.” In 2015, prank videos accounted for 17.7 billion views on the platform. These numbers reflect the prank videos’ propensity to go viral. In the case of Hanna, her video broke out of her dedicated subscriber base, inspiring countless headlines and more clicks.
In March, fraternal twins Niki and Gabi DeMartino attempted to fake a trip to Milan by going to Olive Garden and Instagramming from precarious angles. Needless to say, they weren’t successful since they failed to account for the weather and time difference between their home in suburban Pennsylvania and Italy, and because anyone who has ever been to an Olive Garden can clock the interior immediately. In the same month, two BuzzFeed video producers, Jazzmyne Robbins and Lindsay Webster, attempted to fake their own trip to Europe. They were so methodical, they almost got away with it, but for a few commenters who recognized the china at their “London tea house” as belonging to a tea room in Los Angeles.
The first “faked a vacation” video I remember seeing on YouTube was posted by Natalies Outlet in November 2018, a Florida-based family-friendly channel run by Natalie Alzate. Titled, “48 HOURS LYING CHALLENGING- MY FAKE TRIP TO JAPAN!” Alzate and her husband drove to Walt Disney World in Orlando and attempted to use the Japan pavilion at Epcot as a backdrop for photographs in front of the fake temple architecture.
They printed fake flight tickets and took pictures of Japanese snacks and sodas at her sister’s house, which they pretended was an Airbnb, to post on her Instagram. In the YouTube video that disclosed the fake out, Alzate describes the ordeal as “a social experiment,” (loaded language in the YouTube community that has been used to validate truly criminal videos). Whatever the reason, her “fake trip” drew in 2.7 million views, more than double the average of her recent videos.
“Fake trip” videos, take a lot of time to make, and cost a lot of money. Alzate spent $200 on Japanese treats, not to mention the cost of Disney World admittance (one day at Epcot for two costs a minimum of $218 before fees.) It adds up. The pay off, then—those extra million views—seems to make the endless cycle of upping the ante worthwhile.