There aren’t many Instagram celebrities like Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela, a freckled Brazilian-American teenager who has accrued 1.3 million Instagram followers.
Miquela is what every Instagram influencer aspires to be. Her skin is flawless. Her poses are effortlessly cool. She’s even appeared in Vogue and Paper Magazine.
But Miquela isn’t a real person.
Miquela is one of a growing list of fake Instagram personalities designed by real humans in the tech and fashion industries — many of them boasting millions of followers.
Digital personas aren’t exclusive to Instagram or even a particularly new phenomenon, but avatars like Miquela come about as close to being human — both in their presentation and the reactions they elicit from real people — as any digital creations yet.
“The thing that makes them so compelling is that they are so lifelike,” said Taylor Lorenz, a staff reporter at The Atlantic who covers Internet culture. “I think we all want to see what these humanoid robots would look like. We’re all fascinated by digital creatures.”
Instagram, the photo-sharing platform bought by Facebook in 2012, is rife with its own type of celebrities, called “influencers.” These influencers spark trends in fashion, fitness, lifestyle and more while racking up massive follower counts. An influencer might share videos of their latest workout, while another posts picturesque avocado toast in pristine white-tiled kitchens.
Influencer culture is often criticized for creating the veneer of real people that have little basis in reality. That makes Instagram an ideal medium to test the limits of impersonating humanity.
“At some point the question of, ‘Why do we even need a human?’ emerges, and you see people playing around with someone who could be a human,” said Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania who studies digital culture. “Instagram is a perfect platform for that.”
More human than human
People have been creating fake personas online since the earliest days of the internet.
Since the mid-1980s, characters like Max Headroom have become minor celebrities as entirely digital creations. Modern shows like “Westworld” have also questioned how humans would treat the closest possible approximation of a real person — and at what point they are considered living beings.
During the 2016 U.S. election, social media accounts connected to Kremlin-linked Russian actors impersonated liberal and conservative Americans to push divisive political rhetoric and misinformation. And in February, Google debuted Duplex, its AI tech that could make phone calls and arrange appointments by sounding almost exactly like a real person.
Instagram avatars have already fooled plenty of people. Experts who spoke with NBC News said Instagram avatars feel like the natural next step in the rapidly advancing world of technology, but some had concerns about these accounts concealing the intent behind them.
Melanie Green, an associate professor of media effects and technology and interpersonal interactions at The State University of New York at Buffalo, said there’s a different reaction from users who are duped for a purpose versus an account being subversive for dubious reasons.
In one instance, a beautiful Instagrammer called Louise Delage appeared smiling in dozens of photos taken on yachts and at exclusive parties, but always with a drink in her hand. The account was later revealed to be a public service announcement about alcoholism.
“People don’t like being tricked, and they super don’t like being lied to,” Green said. “Going back to the alcohol awareness campaign, being fooled was part of it. People were fooled but they didn’t feel lied to.”
It’s a fine line between creating an avatar that fools people but doesn’t feel like a lie, particularly when the people behind them do their best to blur the lines between what’s real and fake.
In April, Miquela’s account was allegedly hacked by another Instagram personality, “@BermudaIsBae,” a pro-Trump self-described “robot-supremacist,” who uploaded images of herself to Miquela’s account, threatening her to “promise to tell people the truth” in order to get her account back.
Eventually Miquela got her account back, posted photos with Bermuda and later confessed that she’s “not a human being.”
Brud, the artificial intelligence and robotics company that created Miquela, later put out a statement about the alleged “hack,” but some have suggested the drama was a PR stunt by the company.
Despite the fiction, the feud put Miquela over the million-follower milestone, according to The Cut — a benchmark that can open partnership opportunities.
Lorenz said this is why people engage with these accounts.
“If they can construct compelling narratives around these digital influencers then it’s interesting,” Lorenz said.
Instagram avatars have also led to questions about identity and appropriation.
In April of 2017, Shudu’s first post appeared on Instagram. In the image, she stares into a camera wearing what appears to be traditional dzilla neck rings of the Ndebele people of South Africa. Her look is striking. She is statuesque with dark skin and piercing eyes.
Shudu quickly became a sensation.
“How is someone born like this????? This is out of this world from another universe type of beauty,” one user commented on a photo of Shudu.
Shudu is the creation of Cameron-James Wilson, 29, a veteran fashion photographer, who began speaking publicly about his creation in February 2018.
“When I felt that too many people thought she was real, the debate was gone,” Wilson said. “I felt it was time to lay the facts on the table. I think this new technology is exciting. It’s polarizing and opens up debate and that’s the point of any art, and I’m absolutely proud what I created is doing that.”
Wilson certainly sparked debate. While he’s been approached by designers and beauty lines wanting to work with Shudu, the revelation also led critics to question if a white man had the right to define black beauty, and if Shudu is taking up spaces that should belong to human models of color.
“It’s just fetishizing women and women of color, and you can have all the politics you want, but when you create a black woman model, I don’t think there’s any excuse for getting out of fetishization,” Lingel said.
If the fashion industry was more diverse, this critique would be moot, Wilson said.
“It’s only a problem because the industry is the way it is, because it’s not being diverse enough,” he said, adding that he only allows Shudu to work with companies he feels are authentically diverse. “If it was diverse and hiring dark-skinned models then I think what I’m doing with Shudu would be more well-received. This is a problem we need to tackle with the industry as a whole.”
Despite the critics, Wilson said he’s grateful for the debate and hopes the fashion industry will continue to diversify. He said he plans to create more characters like Shudu and has already begun accounts for his two latest digital Instagram models: Brenn, a plus-sized model of color, and Galaxia, an alien model.