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Fake Famous explores the industry of social media influencers through an innovative social experiment.

HBO / Crave

The other day I put a personal notice on Facebook, on my Author Page. It was a useful way to get some information out and I appreciated the replies. The same day, someone was very nasty to me on Twitter. I blocked him. Been doing a lot of blocking because the pandemic has made some people lose perspective or incited them to rage and attack.

I’m on Instagram, but barely. An occasional photo, a “like” for some friend’s beautiful work. Yet Instagram is where the action is. There is a pink wall at a Paul Smith store in LA that people flock to, from around the world, to have their Insta photo taken there. They pose and preen.

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Fake Famous (now on HBO on-demand and Crave) starts at the pink wall. The camera just gazes at these people, not for judgment, but from curiosity. The documentary, made by first-timer Nick Bilton, a former tech journalist, amounts to an experiment. But, really, it’s a dare. Can Bilton and a small team find three unknowns and make them very famous via Instagram? Can he make them seem like big-shot influencers who get paid to peddle products and get lots of free stuff?

Binge-watching guide: More than 30 series and specials to help you get through winter

Following the story of the dare is a gravely funny and bittersweet experience. Revealing too. Bilton auditioned hundreds of applicants for the experiment and settled on three: Dominique Druckman, an aspiring actor working in retail; Chris Bailey, who is already trying to be a fashion designer and also works in retail; and Wylie Heiner, who is just a very pleasant guy, working as the personal assistant to a top LA real-estate broker.

Do they want to be Instagram-famous? Yes, they say. What is that kind of fame, anyway? Well, some publicity people and observers of the “influencer” phenomenon say it’s a strange kind of fame – fame that’s like being a toddler all the time and getting constant attention and love. But to get there means a lot of hard work and being devoted to fakery.

There are two deeply instructive sections of the doc. First, there is the boot camp that the three young people must take to succeed as Instagram stars. Hair, makeup, clothes and the like. They get a hair makeover and Dominique is turned into a vaguely glam, blonde, girl-next-door type. She’s amused and a bit thrilled.

The other vital portion comes near the end. After much work, two of the three basically want out of the experiment. The fakery is too much for them and Wylie is genuinely spooked when an old friend sees his Instagram life and just asks, “What the hell happened to you?” It’s left to Dominique to possibly become an Insta megastar. But, you know, life intervenes in the form of a pandemic.

Bilton had his plan: Buy thousands of fake followers – “millions of fake people following fake people and sharing fake news” – but slowly, so as not to alert Instagram to the fakery, and then build phony-glam lives for his trio. He shows Dominque how to use a toilet seat as a prop to make it look like she’s staring out the window of a plane. His team hires a mansion for an afternoon to have the trio pose in what looks like luxury surroundings.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Dominique who succeeds at first. Free stuff flows to her, companies offer her money to promote their goods. She’s not as spooked as the other two and starts to enjoy it all. Then, the world shuts down, and what’s real is the pain and suffering of others.

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A postscript: I looked up Dominique Druckman. She kept the hair, has done some small acting roles, takes acting and improv classes. She mentions in her résumé she has 341K Instagram followers.

Streaming pick Monarca (two seasons, Netflix) is excellent, diverting Mexican melodrama. Think Succession but with more violence. It’s about a wealthy family who made their fortune in a tequila brand name called Monarca. Daughter Ana Maria (Irene Azuela) is living in LA when her dad summons her home. He wants her to help run a clean business; no corruption and scandal. Is that even possible in Mexico today? Soon, Ana Maria is finding out as she’s put in charge. Executive producer Salma Hayek wanted to have a big, broad drama (Spanish with English subtitles) that covers everything good and everything rotten in Mexico.

Join Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle and veteran writer Bill Brioux for a live webcast on Friday, Feb. 5, at noon ET as they discuss the latest on the TV streaming battleground and what shows to add to your must-watch list. Globe and Mail subscribers can register at tgam.ca/experiences.

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