The article first appeared on the NBC News.
Miquela Sousa is what every Instagram influencer aspires to be — but she's NOT a real person!
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.”
Read more on the NBC News.