An ongoing Instagram feud between two non-human accounts took a strange turn last week when the pair met up “in real life.”
The drama began when 19-year-old Brazilian-American model, musician, and online personality Lil Miquela, known by her 1 million followers as @lilmiquela, had her Instagram account “hacked” by Bermuda, aka @bermudaisbae, a blonde Trump-supporting model with 64,000 followers.
“You can’t have your account back until you promise to tell people the truth,” Bermuda wrote.
That “truth” was later revealed by Lil Miquela in an Instagram post.
Lil Miquela has all the traits of a modern “insta-influencer.” She goes to Coachella. She has perfect hair, cool clothes. She supports progressive values and always maintains a positive/inspirational attitude on her posts. But despite the verisimilitude of being a real-life social media star, Lil Miquela is not human.
That’s immediately obvious when looking at the selfies she’s been posting since joining Instagram in 2016. The images show her in real-life locations, and sometimes alongside real-life people, but she’s clearly a computer-generated image.
None of that has stopped her from amassing a million followers, landing on the cover of a magazine, getting her music on Spotify, and even landing a short gig with Prada when she took over the brand’s Instagram account during its fall 2018 show in Milan.
So, who–or what–are Lil Miquela and Bermuda really?
Despite the fact that Lil Miquela said she and personalities like her are “robots,” her account seems to be a computer-generated image whose content comes from real-life humans who work at an L.A.-based company called Brud.
Photo on Brud's website
The Brud company website pitches itself as a “group of Los Angeles based problem solvers specializing in robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses.”
Robotics and artificial intelligence? Not so much. There’s little evidence the company does anything beyond savvy PR stunts that borderline on performance art. Example: After Bermuda “hacked” Lil Miquela’s Instagram account, she claimed that they both were created a “literal genius” named Daniel Cain, head of the (fake) Cain Intelligence company.
The Cain Intelligence website states that Cain has worked with every major Fortune 500 company, saves his clients an estimated $6.8 billion annually, and fervently supports President Donald Trump.
“Let them seize the day, we are seizing the future.” ~ Daniel Cain
In a statement posted on Brud’s website, the company describes how it was approached by Cain Intelligence in 2015.
“Initially we decided to work with them as we were told this advanced AI would sit bedside by terminally ill children and teenagers, seeing kids through their final days. This was a lie. We soon learned this magnificent, groundbreaking piece of technology was in fact to be marketed to the world’s elite as a servant and sex object. This AI had full consciousness, able to feel pain, fear, and loss.”
The statement goes on to basically describe the premise of HBO’s “Westworld.”
“In our naivety, we presented Miquela’s consciousness as being based on a real human being. Memories of family and of past were presented as figments of a human life she once knew. This person was a fabrication of our staff. We thought this imagined scenario would make Miquela feel more comfortable with herself. Clearly we were mistaken...We are endlessly sorry.”
There’s more to the story, but the more important question is: why? What does it all mean?
The first answer is money. While Lil Miquela and Bermuda go at it on social media, her creators continue to profit off of her music, advertising deals, and media exposure. That’s all well and good. But the real story here is how people have been reacting to Lil Miquela and Bermuda online. It’s really caused users to posit thoughtful, important questions about the implications A.I. might soon have on our society.
“when ppl hate on her does she feel sad??”
“How she can take a selfie?”
“ok how the fuck a robot is singing???”
Maybe the questions aren’t that smart. Still, it’s fascinating to see how people have been engaging with the accounts. Until last week’s reveal, not everyone was convinced Lil Miquela was, as Bermuda once called her, a “fake ass person.”
“Yes she’s real, she’s a student in visual arts and such so she works on her pictures she takes of herself,” writes one user.
Many knew Lil Miquela was “fake.” But there was no consensus among people on exactly how fake: Was Lil Miquela an A.I. like Dolores in “Westworld”? Was she a real-life girl who represented herself online with computer-generated images? Was this all the work of Cain Intelligence, the company run by a MAGA-chanting “literal genius”? Or was it all a marketing ploy?
I turned off my phone all weekend and the first thing I saw when I turned it back on today is this @highsnobiety cover I shot months ago with @yimmyyayo. You can be not okay and still be strong. You can feel powerless and still feel empowered. I’m taking over @highsnobiety ’s IG today, go check out their stories. Hopefully I can put a smile on your face. Thank you @highsnobiety and @yimmyayo
“In an era of fake news, AI, Russian troll farms, catfishing, and deceptive selfies, Miquela highlights how technology is estranging us from reality,” reads a recent Highsnobriety article.
Felix Petty at Vice’s i-D writes: “If Miquela isn’t real who is to say that both those other influencers are also not real. They all exist almost exclusively in the same place and in the same way. They promote the same things, reveal the same bland approximations of interior life.
Miquela is not interesting because she is popular or cool. She is interesting because, by not being real, she questions all our assumptions about what we perceive to be real. If Miquela is fictional, if we question her reality, should we start examining the truths all those other influencers are living?”
Questions about the phoniness of social media influencers aside, there’s also a straightforward practical concern: It doesn’t matter so much whether people agree on how real Miquela is. But it’s not hard to imagine a time when technology advances to the point where determining whether a persona is real is important, and we can’t do it–or, at least, can’t agree on it.