life in pixels

Why We Fake College Applications and Facebook Profiles

Photo-Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer; Photo: Chris Coduto/Getty Images

If you hired black-market college admissions fixer Rick Singer to get your kid into school, as at least 44 parents are alleged to have done by the Department of Justice, he wouldn’t just bribe proctors and find SAT-taking ringers (thought he apparently did do those things) — he’d Photoshop your child an entire ersatz athletic career. With nearly every client, an FBI affidavit filed on Tuesday indicates, Singer would request a picture of the applicant, for the express purpose of editing it into a sham packet of athletic accomplishments: “I’m gonna make him a kicker/punter,” Singer apparently told William McGlashan, a private equity executive whose son was applying to USC. “I’ll get a picture and figure out how to Photoshop and stuff, so it looks like it.” As McGlashan later allegedly commented to Singer, “The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

McGlashan was onto something. It’s hard, looking around, not to come to the conclusion that fakery is the way the world works, though “unbelievable” may not be the right word for a system that relies so heavily on the creation and maintenance of credible appearances. It felt oddly appropriate that the most prominent student beneficiary of the scandal was the social-media influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of the actress Lori Loughlin and the fashion magnate Mossimo Giannulli. Singer’s tactics — at his direction, Giannulli’s older sister is said to have posed for a photo on a rowing machine, pretending to be a coxswain for her college application — must have felt familiar to someone whose business model depends on the artfully staged presentation of a carefully curated life. Soon after Giannulli arrived at USC last fall, she posted a photo of herself in her dorm to Instagram. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days,” the caption read. “#ad #primestudent #allonamazon.” It was a wonderful inversion: Her parents allegedly spent a load of money on fake academic accomplishments to obtain admissions to real college; almost immediately upon arrival, Giannulli had transformed the ostensibly real academic environment of college into something fake — a kind of studio backdrop — to make a load of money doing her real work as an influencer promoting beauty products and Amazon Prime to her millions of followers.

But even if both Singer and Giannulli are specialists in the carefully exaggerated profile, it’s not really fair to say that they were engaged in the same line of work. Giannulli ran a perfectly legal business, as long as she properly labeled her sponsored content. And the fakery at work in social-media influencing is more sophisticated and subtle than the fraud perpetrated by Singer, whose blatant counterfeiting operation reminded me most of social-media catfishing, in which scammers offer up crudely and obviously Photoshopped images as proof of their reality. The edited shots Singer’s graphic designers created for his clients’ children’s applications are cousins to the photos of herself that the Instagram model Jessica Hunt once found, onto which an enterprising young woman had pasted her own face.

The son of a wealthy vintner allegedly pretending to be a water polo player to gain admission to USC is not enormously distant from a woman pretending to be an Instagram model to gain admission to some sucker’s DMs; nor, for that matter, from a Russian troll pretending to be an American voter in order to gain admission to U.S. political discourse. In essence, Singer, the catfish, and the troll are all doing the same thing: creating a fake profile.

A profile is a funny thing, a kind of pointillist representation of a person as a collection of answers to a particular set of questions. A college admissions packet and a Tinder profile offer similarly shallow and similarly desperate portraits of their subjects: a capsule biography, a selection of preferences, a catalog of strengths, and, maybe, a selection of photographs highlighting athletic accomplishments. Other systems will use different data points as the bases for their profiles, but they all have one thing in common: they’re made for sorting. It’s not an accident that you see them most often in systems that deal with huge amounts of people: Census takers, admissions officers, hiring managers, advertising exchanges, and Tinder users can all process the crowds of people they encounter more efficiently when each individual has been fit into an identical framework.

The tradeoff for that efficiency is the recognition that some base level of misrepresentation is bound to occur. Even if your profile isn’t the product of outright fraudulence, you still understand it as not quite “real”: At best, it’s a performance of a particular version of you, pitched to stand out to a particular audience. At worst, it’s a kind of distorted silhouette, a vague outline of your “real self,” traced by the data generated by which boxes you’ve checked and which words you use. In either case, the profile isn’t just prone to manipulation; it’s a product of manipulation. And certainly, once everything seems a little bit fake to you, it’s easier to justify more fakery. (This is the unbelievable way the world works these days, right?)

But not all profile systems are equally prone to fraudulence. Facebook is chock full of fake profiles, from the misleading to the utterly invented. The U.S. Census is not. One distinction between the Census and Facebook or the college admissions process is that the latter two are competitive — in some cases, highly so. Parents of certain backgrounds, driven by widening inequality and a sense that a college degree is an absolute minimum condition for a middle-class life in the U.S., are willing to sacrifice an enormous amount of money and effort to obtain admission to college for their kids. Social media is structured to capture user attention and sell it to advertisers; to ensure an adequate amount of attention is available to sell, users are encouraged, explicitly and implicitly, to compete with one another for the attention of other users. If you want your numbers to go up — followers, likes, shares, impressions — you need to win in the crowded attention marketplace

But the other distinction, maybe the more important one, is in how systems handle transparency and control. Your admission to college is based on shifting criteria that you can guess at but which are never made explicitly clear; no baseline test scores or extracurricular stardom can guarantee admission. Your victories in the “attention marketplace” of a social network are only ever based on the rigged rules of the platform’s black-box sorting algorithm. Worse, you’re never quite in enough control of how you’re being represented: You have a Facebook profile that you yourself have created by filling out many of the same boxes you’d fill out for a college application, but Facebook has surreptitiously expanded and filled out that profile based on its observations of your behavior as you use its site. It’s like a never-ending college interview, a hidden but crucial supplement to the portion of the profile or application you filled out yourself.

When success is so inexplicable, and your control over it so distant and unclear, it can be hard not to imagine that others are cheating, finding competitive advantage in tweaked photos or invented triumphs. Even if you yourself aren’t a faker, everyone else must be viewed with suspicion. On a legal level, given the monetary stakes involved, Singer and his clients’ alleged fraud is obviously very different from the padding of a Tinder profile. But this kind of fraud should be expected from a world in which decisions are increasingly made through the rote assessment of representative profiles, whether by lovesick suitors, overworked admissions officers, or faceless sorting algorithms. One lesson of the Varsity Blues scandal might be that fakery of the kind that we tend to find uncanny online isn’t a function of the internet per se, but rather an inevitable byproduct of systems in which human beings are replaced by bundles of data and forced into opaque and grinding contests.

Why We Fake College Applications and Facebook Profiles