'Age of Influence': New Hulu docuseries explores dark side of social media influencers

The power of persuasion can be easily misused and exploited.

June 5, 2023, 12:09 PM

Spend any time on social media, and you'll likely come across content from a popular creator paid by brands to persuade you into buying a particular product or service.

The concept, known as influencer marketing, has exploded in the last decade, with total spending on influencer campaigns forecasted to hit $6.16 billion in 2023 alone, according to a report from Insider Intelligence.

In 2019, the modern definition of "influencer" was officially cemented into the lexicon when it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as "a person who is able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on social media." If given the opportunity, 54% of Gen Z and millennials would become an influencer and 86% are willing to post sponsored content for money, according to a 2019 report by the research firm Morning Consult, which surveyed 2,000 people ages 13 to 38 in the U.S.

But this burgeoning line of work also has its share of bad actors capable of misusing their power of persuasion. A new six-part Hulu documentary series, "The Age of Influence," examines the dark side of influencer culture through some of the biggest social media scandals of our time.

PHOTO: "The Age of Influence" premieres June 6 on Hulu.
"The Age of Influence" premieres June 6 on Hulu.
ABC News

There's Danielle Miller, a self-described "con-artist," who pleaded guilty in March to fraudulently obtaining $1.5 million in federal COVID-relief loans to fund her lavish lifestyle.

"She took pictures and videos with a Rolex on one hand driving a Mercedes. She would film herself shopping at Bal Harbor, picking up designer goods and Fendi purses, Gucci shoes," Gabrielle Bluestone, a journalist who covered Miller's story for New York magazine, said in the series.

Miller carried out the scheme by using stolen identities to apply for bank accounts, and using the bank account information to apply for a federal loan and receive hundreds of thousands of dollars days later, according to former acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell.

"Social media has afforded her the opportunity to showcase just exactly what she was doing, the peak of the alleged criminal conduct when most of the world was just trying to stay safe," Mendell said.

Then there's Jebara Igbara, a New Jersey entrepreneur who created a philanthropic social media persona known as Jay Manzini to con his way into wealth and internet fame.

Igbara's series of schemes involving cryptocurrency, fashion merchandise and viral philanthropy hinged upon the trust of his devoted social media disciples. But when a former friend, along with others, threatened to reveal his deceit, Igbara allegedly resorted to violence to keep his house of cards from crumbling.

Last November, Igbara pleaded guilty to wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering, and "admitted to leveraging his Instagram popularity to prey upon innocent investors and steal at least $8 million of their hard-earned money," the United States Attorney's Office said in a press release.

"This power of the influencer is very, very real. In my opinion social media enabled this entire operation to occur. It enabled Jay Mazini to exist. Without social media, he would have always just been Jebara Igbara," said Jeremy Feigenbaum, an attorney with the Spodek Law Group, whose firm once represented Igbara.

Another episode delves into the headline-making story of Tracii Hutsona, a serial con artist who posed as a social media influencer geared toward the rich and famous and conned TV personality Joumana Kidd out of more than $1 million.

Hutsona used her position as Kidd's personal assistant to funnel money from Kidd's financial accounts, including college savings accounts for Kidd's children, into her own bank account to fund her own luxury lifestyle, according to a press release from federal prosecutors.

Hutsona's episode also features comments from Hutsona's sister, Deborah Lindstrom, and Jeff Mitchell, the Los Angeles federal prosecutor who investigated an earlier scheme of Hutsona's that involved identity theft and submitting fraudulent invoices for the staffing agency she worked at.

Mitchell explains how some fraudsters use social media as a tool to gain trust and influence.

"Fraudsters need to convince their victims they are authentic and genuine. So having a social media presence or indicators of trustworthiness is important to the fraud," Mitchell said.

Other episodes of the show explore the social media feud between F-factor diet founder Tanya Zuckerbrot and Instagram influencer Emily Gellis, the story of convicted counterfeit steroid distributor Tyler "musclehead320" Bauman and the case of Machelle Hobson, an Arizona "momfluencer" accused of horrifically abusing her seven foster children behind the scenes of their widely watched YouTube videos.

“The Age of Influence” is produced by Part2 Pictures for ABC News Studios. Joe Eardly, David Shadrack Smith and Fay Yu are executive producers for Part2 Pictures. For ABC News Studios, Victoria Thompson is the executive producer, and David Sloan is the senior executive producer.