This study will briefly describe the events that transpired surrounding Fyre Festival. The research will focus on how the festival effected the local citizens of Exuma, a small island located in the Bahamas. Content analysis of social media posts will describe what the Fyre team did to attract such a large audience. Lastly, six errors of human judgement and behavior will be used as a framework to describe the decision making of Fyre Festival.
Overall, there has been less research completed on man-made disaster than natural disasters. A man-made disaster must meet the same criteria as a natural disaster. It must be large in scale, cause serious damage, and be reported (Shaluf and Ahmadum 2003). There are a few key differences that cause man-made disasters to gain less attention from the research community. Most of all, man-made disasters are usually less damaging than natural disasters. In 2001 through 2004 natural disasters caused ten times more fatalities and three times more insurance claims than man-made disasters. There is a perception that natural disasters can not be predicted while man-made disasters can be easily prevented. Natural disasters have a few causes that have closely been studied. In contrast, man-made disasters are caused by a multitude of sources (Rosa-Mari and Casal 2003). Finally, organizations that manage natural disasters collect data that can easily be used in research. According to Coleman, until the 17th century, man-made disasters were a rare occurrence. Man-made disasters were mostly confined to coal mine accidents. The 20th century saw a huge increase in man-made disasters because of the diversity in new industries (Coleman 2006). In an ever-changing world, our research must change with it. For this reason, I chose to focus my research on a man-made disaster.
Fyre Festival was a luxury music festival hosted by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. The festival was scheduled to take place on April 28-30 and May 5-7, 2017 (Maerowitz 2017). Once announced, the festival quickly rose to the top of social media feeds due to an aggressive marketing strategy. The event was promoted on Instagram, by popular models such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Emily Ratajkowski. During the festival, major concerns of security, food shortage, medical services, and lack of artists arose. Subsequently, the festival was canceled after the first day and thousands of people were left stranded on a small island with no means of getting home (Gaca 2017). As a result, class action lawsuits were filed in the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York against the festival’s organizers. Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison on account of wire fraud, defrauding investors, defrauding ticket investors, and had to pay settlements of 26 million dollars (The United States 2017).
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On December 12, 2016 a promotional video was posted for Fyre Festival on Instagram. The video contained the world’s top super models, dancing around bonfires, drinking on the beach, and swimming next to private yachts. Text over the video promised “an immersive music festival on a remote and private island in the Exumas”, “the best in food, art, music, and adventure”, “a quest to push beyond boundaries.” Simultaneously, when the video was released, 400 of the top Instagram influencers posted an orange square with the hashtag #FyreFestival (see figure 1) (Ohlheiser 2017).
Source for Figure 1, Instagram
Tickets for the festival sold out just minutes after the video and orange square were posted to Instagram. Tickets ranged from $500 to $12,000 U.S. dollars. Some reported that they paid over $100,000 for VIP passes and upgrades (Exuma Online 2017).
The day before the Festival, most of the musicians canceled their shows because they did not receive any form of payment (Bluestone 2017). When people began to arrive to the festival on April 28th, festival-goers were shuffled to a beach party and given free alcohol for six hours. Hundreds of local workers were hired the day of the festival, to help prepare the festival grounds. Following the six hour party, festival-goers were then drove to a sign in tent. After waiting in line for three hours, people rushed to the beach to claim the exclusive villa, suites, and mansions they were promised. Hordes of people ran across the island, to be greeted with left over FEMA tents and no concert equipment. Around nightfall, a local band played for a few hours, until it started to rain. People rushed to their FEMA tents, but they did not provide adequate shelter for the night. Many tents blew away during the course of an overnight storm (Wamsley 2017). Mattresses got drenched from the rain, electricity was not provided, bathrooms were nonexistent, and many were left sleeping eight people per tent. The next day, the festival was canceled, and it was announced that attendees should return home as soon as possible. However, everyone was stranded on the island because the local government ordered no more planes to land on the island. Festival-goers were locked in the airport with no access to food, water, or air-conditioning. Three people were reported to be hospitalized because they fainted waiting for a flight. Many news articles compare this festival experience to the novels Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games (Newell 2017).
MAN-MADE DISASTER AND HUMAN ERROR
According to Curran, there are six mistakes that can be made when orchestrating large events such as Fyre Festival. “Engineering overreach” is when a problem arises that is greater than the system’s ability to comprehend and manage them. The staff in charge of planning Fyre Festival did not have the skills or knowledge to manage many of the problems that arose during the planning stages. The second mistake that can be made is “absence of preparedness”. It is standard in large events to assess the risk of failure and their likelihood of occurring. After the “risk assessment” is complete, leaders can take steps to mitigate the effects of any potential failures. According to the Netflix documentary, there was not enough time or man power to address many of the issues that the team faced. The planning team worked day after day, solving one problem after another. No time was used to plan ahead for future problems and ways to mitigate them. The next mistake, “smooth sailing” fallacy, is the assumption that nothing has gone wrong yet, so nothing can go wrong in the future. The team was so focused on solving the problems of yesterday that they could not address the problems that were to arise in the future. Another mistake is “social herding”, when people look to the behaviors of others to justify and confirm that they are doing the right thing. The Netflix documentary paints the leader, Billy McFarland, as the person everyone looked up to. They followed his every command despite any doubts they might have had. Billy instilled a sheepish mentality in everyone around him. The next mistake is “insider view”, this can cause a person’s opinion to be different than what is happening in reality. Many of the planners for Fyre Festival were so caught up in their work that they failed to see the bigger picture and what the consequences of their actions would be. Lastly, “risk-seeking” can cause a person to take risks in order to meet a certain goal. The staff involved took risks in order to achieve the goal of the perfect festival that they had promised. They put locals, investors, and human lives at risk because they were jaded by the unrealistic goal they had set out to achieve (Curran 2017).
When the Fyre Festival was proposed to locals of Exuma, they were promised the creation of hundreds of jobs. Local caterers, vendors, spas, security firms, and tour operators risked their livelihood to compete for Fyre Festival’s business (Parker 2019). Many businesses hired more staff in anticipation of thousands of festival-goers on the island. Despite the promises, many of the local workers and businesses went unpaid after the festival got cancelled. Estimates say that $500,000 in wages are owed to local businesses and workers (Willinghan 2019).
One of these businesses that was never paid is Maryann Rolle’s Point Beach Bar and Grille. Maryann spent $50,000 dollars on food supplies and $137,000 to pay local workers. This money was promised to her after the completion of the festival but was never given to her (Rossingnol 2019).
It has not been all bad for the locals of Exuma. Tourism to the islands has been steadily on the rise. The Bahama’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation said that “International arrivals to The Bahamas, including The Exumas, have grown consistently since October of 2017.” In 2019, the Exumas saw a 10.3% increase in tourism. It is clear that Fyre Festival gave the island free publicity. Traditionally, more tourism is thought to be a good for the economy. Instead, locals say that the Fyre Festival has changed the narrative on the island. Instead of asking what beach to visit, tourists ask where was Fyre festival held? A local shop owner said A friend said “I hate that the first time people are talking about the Bahamas in such a big way, it’s about this (Fyre Festival). We have a lot to offer. Bahamians are such jovial people anyway, so we’re laughing it off.” Locals would rather be known as an exotic location that provides a deep sense of privacy with marine life, stunning views, and swimming with the pigs. Instead locals are pestered with questions about an event they would rather forget (Carey 2019).
In order to understand how Fyre Festival used social media, ten different social media posts from Instagram will be analyzed. The posts that were selected were the first ten posts on the official Fyre Festival Instagram page. In total, 28 total posts were made on the Fyre Festival official Instagram page between December 12, 2016 and April 28, 2017. Two of the 28 posts were apologies for the events that had transpired during the festival (See appendix A for the coding sheet of the ten Instagram posts).
All ten of the Instagram posts contained popular Female models posing on or around beaches. Each picture was minimalist in design and allowed the viewer to the focus on the model. From the announcement of the festival, there was never a long period of time without an Instagram post. The longest time frame without a post was nine days around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. These 10 posts represent excellent examples of “modern” social media advertising. All these factors contributed to hundreds of likes and comments on each photo. Despite these facts, the pictures were not the main draw of the Fyre Festival’s social media campaign, it was the titles.
Despite spending millions on advertising, none of the social media photos contained any information or details about the festival. At first thought, this seems counterintuitive. In fact, this is masterfully designed marketing. The titles of the 10 photos I analyzed were; engage your senses, uncompromising style, Fyre Festival is here, out of the ordinary, be free something surreal, welcome to the future, are you ready, we live to party, and we live to relax. These titles are vague and tell the viewer nothing about the product that they were purchasing. Instead, the viewer is left to create their own details of what the perfect island festival would be. Fyre Festival planted the seed, and viewers grew their own interpretations of what it would entail.
Traditionally, man-made disasters are thought to have less of an effect on people than natural disasters (Natural Catastrophes 2009). Local citizens were negatively affected and will continue to experience hardships from the events of Fyre Festival. They suffered financially from the lack of payment for goods and services they provided. Most notably, they lost the identity of their island that they have long had pride in. Fyre Festival committed all six of Curran’s human judgment mistakes in planning Fyre Festival. The lack of time allotted to the planning stages is a large part why the festival failed. In the future, large scale festivals should be well thought out and pay close attention to the potential risks they pose on local citizens. Fyre Festival’s original popularity came from their aggressive social media campaign on Instagram. Their strategy allowed people to imagine Fyre Festival as the perfect escape. Ironically, Social media was also the platform that festival-goers used to broadcast to the world the lies that they had been fed.
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- Coleman, Les. 2006. “Frequency of Man-Made Disasters in the 20th Century.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 14(1):3-11.
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- Parker, Maggie. 2019. “How Great Exuma’s Locals Are Managing After Fyre Fest, ‘The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” Retrieved April 22, 2019 (https://www.thrillist.com/travel/nation/fyre-festival-great-exuma-bahamas-tourism).
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- Willinghan, AJ. 2019. “Donations are rolling in for a Bahamas restaurant owner who lost money in the Fyre Festival fiasco.” Retrieved April 22, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/21/entertainment/fyre-festival-maryann-rolle-gofundme-trnd/index.html).
Date Posted 12/12/2016
Number of Comments: 83
Number of Likes: 966
Focus of picture: models in bikinis on beach
Wording of Post: engage your senses
Design of Picture: three photos layers on top of each other
Other Comment/Notes: the models are showing a lot of skin, 2/3 of the models are covered in sand
Date Posted: 12/12/2016
Number of Comments: 24
Number of Likes: 1,091
Focus of picture: three models in bikinis, two are on the beach and one is laying on a couch
Wording of Post: Uncompromising style
Design of Picture: three pictures layer over top of each other
Other Comment/Notes: models are all in bikinis
Date Posted: 12/16/2016
Number of Comments: 25
Number of Likes: 374
Focus of picture: models head mirrored on top and bottom
Wording of Post: FyreFestival is here
Design of Picture: orange filter applied over top of picture (color of festival)
Other Comment/Notes: this is the only model that is not white, and it received the least amount of likes and comments
Date Posted: 12/18/2016
Number of Comments: 4
Number of Likes: 276
Focus of picture: model in ocean with her back turned in a bikini
Wording of Post: out of the ordinary
Design of Picture: small picture of model with Fyre Festival logo at the bottom
Other Comment/Notes: model is wearing an orange bathing suit, the color of the festival
Date Posted: 12/20/2016
Number of Comments: 8
Number of Likes: 296
Focus of picture: shirtless model on the beach with her back turned to the camera
Wording of Post: Be free
Design of Picture: smaller picture with background
Date Posted: 12/23/2016
Number of Comments: 29
Number of Likes: 468
Focus of picture: model in bikini on beach in front of water
Wording of Post: Something Surreal
Design of Picture: faded picture of model with full color background of water. Fyre Festival logo is printed over top of her face
Date Posted: 01/02/2017
Number of Comments: 14
Number of Likes: 555
Focus of picture: model in bikini emerging from the ocean
Wording of Post: Welcome to the Future
Design of Picture: small picture with swirl background
Date Posted: 01/03/2017
Number of Comments:
Number of Likes: 254
Focus of picture: 6
Wording of Post: Are you ready?
Design of Picture: model emerging from ocean. Picture is cut in half with an orange triangle over top of her face
Date Posted: 01/09/2017
Number of Comments: 15
Number of Likes: 415
Focus of picture: model in bikini doing hand stand on the beach.
Wording of Post: We live to Party
Design of Picture: black and white photos with orange border
Date Posted: 01/09/2017
Number of Comments: 9
Number of Likes: 368
Focus of picture: model in bikini paddle boarding in ocean
Wording of Post: We live to relax
Design of Picture: black and white photo with orange design over top of water
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