Last April, Santiago Maratea raised $2.1 million in two weeks after his viral debut as a socially conscious influencer in Argentina. He was crowdfunding to import an expensive medication from abroad for an 11-month-old baby suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, a rare disease.

Days after Maratea’s campaign, the government approved the medication, making it available for purchase in Argentina. A multitude of comments followed on social media, many of them voicing outrage that it seemed to have taken an influencer for the government to approve a medicine. Maratea has harnessed that fury to raise enormous amounts of money for several other campaigns since.

Maratea, a 30-year-old from Buenos Aires, started out on social media in 2015 as a playful and supposedly apolitical influencer. These days, he is constantly sparking political controversies, though he continues to claim to not care about party politics. He intersperses his calls to philanthropic action with rants against public figures from all parties. Politicians rarely respond, worried that a rebuttal might only increase the chances of more attacks from Maratea and his 3.4 million-strong following on Instagram. Rest of World reached out to five politicians and political activists, all of whom refused to speak for this reason. 

The transformation of Maratea’s online persona from a spoiled luxury Instagrammer to Argentine society’s savior has been striking for its speed and effectiveness. In a country where citizens are hyper-connected to the internet but increasingly disconnected from politicians of all stripes, Maratea has filled the void. Yet, he has not entered electoral politics like other celebrities. Nor has he simply focused on attention-grabbing stunts and cash giveaways like other online influencers have done. Instead, according to more than a dozen of his fans and social media experts that Rest of World spoke to, the Argentine influencer is challenging the very role of the state by making a bold claim: Through his high-profile charitable stunts, he is helping the needy more effectively than the government. In the process, he’s created a vast amount of wealth.

Argentina’s poverty rate has almost hit 40% this year, roughly numbering around 10.6 million people. Despite the millions of dollars Maratea says he has spent on helping those in need, the  individuals who have benefited are probably in the dozens. Yet, many of his followers believe that what Maratea provides are tangible results — something they say governments under multiple parties haven’t been able to deliver for decades.

Christian Brovelli, an accountant from the northeastern province of Formosa, told Rest of World that he frequently donates to Maratea. “He shows that one can save lives and make dreams come true by being honest and transparent,” Brovelli said.

Rest of World reached out to Maratea numerous times during the course of reporting. He declined to comment, saying his energy was focused on his next three upcoming fundraisers — two to help sick children in need, and another to help athletes get to the FIFA World Cup.

“I don’t do charity.”

“I don’t do charity,” Maratea says on his Instagram bio. However, it is difficult to describe his activities in the past two years as anything else. Almost every month, he picks a cause to support and fundraise for — medicine for children with rare diseases, a new pitch for a local football club, or offering financial aid for housing to trans people, to name a few. Maratea then asks his followers to donate to cover the costs.

The benefits he accrues from his charitable work are not insignificant. As Maratea raises money for his causes, he also makes it very clear that he expects something in return. After each successful drive, Maratea does a pasada de gorra (passing the tip jar), conducted separately from his fundraisers. So far, these “tips” have raked in tens of thousands of dollars, funding a luxurious lifestyle that Maratea flaunts on his channel. This includes Louis Vuitton and Gucci items, dog leashes valued at approximately $400, private jet trips of around $15,000, thousands of dollars in trips to Europe, and more.

Additionally, like any other influencer, Maratea makes a profit from his follower engagement. A report by HypeAuditor, a social media analytics website, shows that influencers with Maratea’s following can make up to $2,500 per post through direct payments from social media platforms and sponsorships. 

Maratea’s rise to prominence as a do-good influencer was almost accidental. Previously, his viral videos were made very much in the mold of other popular influencers like MrBeast, the U.S.-based YouTube megastar who has over 106 million followers. These videos rely on outrageous gimmicks and cash giveaways to keep viewer numbers high and sponsorship deals coming.

In June 2017, Maratea gave an exorbitant tip to a pizza-delivery person, just as delivery apps were starting to trend, recalled Micaela Cuesta, a social sciences expert at the University of Buenos Aires who has studied Maratea from his early days, to Rest of World. “It wasn’t about highlighting the precariousness of these jobs,” she said, “but rather, about monetizing.”

The success of that, and similar stunts, was the beginning of his online persona’s move towards performative donations, according to Cuesta. “He started to listen to what the market was telling him,” she said.

None of that matters to his followers, whose political cynicism is what makes Maratea’s brand of activist social work so appealing. Those who are engaged with his social media posts, including many who make regular donations, told Rest of World that his underlying message of hope keeps them going. “The absence of the state leads us to opt for self-managed solidarity,” Natalia Buono, a government worker and Maratea donor, told Rest of World

For Cuesta, Maratea does not acknowledge the political power of his actions because he continues to claim he is not engaged in politics. “But he does affect politics,” Cuesta said, “because he influences perceptions of the government, and he has a huge following.”

Some Maratea fans are under no illusions that their favorite influencer could actually make structural changes to Argentine society. “No country actually changes through philanthropy,” Julieta Arrecegor, a publicist from Buenos Aires, told Rest of World. “But I do think that he does change some individual people’s lives.”