True Crime Tuesdays: Jobfished
Helen Archer | On 22, Mar 2022
High-profile, real-life scammers are currently big news. From multi-episode dramatisations, such as the Disney+ adaptation of Bad Blood – an in-depth investigation into Elizabeth Holmes – to Netflix’s Inventing Anna, the series are attracting big audiences, who are apparently fascinated by both the chutzpah of the individuals involved and by the apparent credulity of those they defrauded. Meanwhile, documentaries including the recent hit The Tinder Swindler show that there is an appetite for the unmasking of those who lie, with the aid of the internet, and con people out of their money. Once ironically lauded online – with Joanne the Scammer one of Twitter’s big viral success stories – the current culture is now turning its eye on investigating the kind of modern fraud aided by technology, specifically social media.
BBC Three has been dipping its toe in the subject matter for a while – last year, it released Bad Influencer: The Great Insta Con, about Belle Gibson, the “health guru” who claimed her clean eating had cured her of her non-existent cancer. In Jobfished, reporter Catrin Nye – whose previous work includes a look at the dark side of social media influencers for Panorama – investigates a fictitious creative company called “Madbird”, which recruited unsuspecting jobseekers online during the pandemic.
The lengths founder Ali Ayad went to to create a realistic-looking successful backdrop are breathtaking, and it is little wonder he managed to fool the respected professionals featured here. Claiming to have an office based in Kensington, with a portfolio of work for some of the world’s most well-known companies, it seemed like a thrilling workplace – so much so that some of interview subjects quit their jobs to join the company, despite the first six months being on a commission-only basis, with a salaried role promised after that. Nye speaks to some of those who were duped, who tell of their excitement at getting what they thought was their dream job.
Ayad fooled his employees in a myriad of ways, utilising the hustle culture to encourage people to work long hours for no reward. Taking his cues from people such as Elon Musk, he imitated their work practices and took to wearing a turtleneck in a tribute to Steve Jobs. He – and the company – purported to be socially conscious, supporting Black Lives Matter and other hot topics, and he had hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. He claimed to have featured in a GQ magazine spread – the Photoshopped “evidence” of which he proudly shared online – and to have several degrees from USC. On the face of it, it all seemed legit.
And yet, soon enough, a mysterious email turns up in the new employees’ inboxes, claiming the company did not exist and listing the ways in which its founders were conning people. It turned out that Madbird had plagiarised its entire documentation from an existing company, and that everything else was smoke and mirrors. Nye picks up where that email left off and uncovers the depths of the deception.
The documentary moves along swiftly – perhaps too swiftly. Not much time is given to each of the employees, who variously talk about the effect the con had on their lives – plunging them into debt in some cases, and the possibility of huge fines or deportation in others. The authors of the whistleblowing email aren’t given much time to explain how they uncovered the scam, and some of those who were peripherally involved don’t, understandably, want to speak about it.
When Nye ultimately tracks down Ayad, he refuses to give an interview, refuting accusations brought to him as Nye and her camera crew follow him down the street. It leaves the viewer with lingering, unanswered questions about Ayad’s background and his motives. But the programme works in briefly lifting the lid on the way in which people can be exploited as they seek aspirational employment in a crowded field, and acts as a timely reminder that anything can be faked online.