AN AGE OF DISINFORMATION
Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra is making a lot of people angry. Numerous viewers, especially Egyptians, have objected to casting a black actress to play the historical ruler who is believed to be of Greek heritage. While this debate sounds like your typical culture war bickering, what makes the critiques more complex is that the show claims to be a docudrama and is edited like a docuseries, with experts chiming in about historical facts. Complaints from Egyptians argue that this misrepresents the facts of their cultural history – and others ask, if this is a docuseries that’s part of producer Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens initiative, why not highlight actual female rulers of African descent? With lines like: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black”, Queen Cleopatra encourages us to disregard what we’re told in school and to believe whatever we want to believe, or accept whatever information resonates with us.
While this show may have noble intentions to remix history to send a positive current message, is it really a good idea for documentaries to tell us to disregard what we were told in school? More broadly, the looser-with-facts style of “docuseries” fits into a bigger trend toward so-called documentaries that are less concerned with reporting the objective truth of a story, than with furthering a certain subjective message. In our post-truth age, conspiracy theories have more power than ever, and plenty of supposed documentaries out there are deliberately spreading misinformation and setting out with a sometimes questionable or at least very one-sided agenda. As people simply become so distrustful of those in charge, and even mainstream documentaries no longer care about the facts – how are we to separate the real news from the fake news, or the real history from the fictitious retellings? Here’s our take on how the lines between fact and fiction have become more blurred than ever, and the danger of living in a culture where trust in truth is completely eroded and devalued.
HOW CONSPIRACY THEORISTS BECAME THE AUTHORITY
It’s always been kind of fun to have at least one conspiracy theory that you secretly subscribe to. Was the moon landing a hoax? What happened at Roswell? There’s a lot about history we can’t know for sure, and it might not hurt to have an open mind. But up until recently, there’s been a general acceptance that most of these over-the-top theories were… well, a little unhinged.
Now, conspiracy theories are driving more traffic than ever, and conspiracy theorists have cleaned up their image a little. No longer the man wearing a tin-foil hat broadcasting from a ham radio in his garage, they’re using traditional news tactics like documentaries to disseminate their material. What sounded like outlandish or far-fetched theories a short time ago are now legitimized and gathering huge traction online.
We’ve long had conspiracy theories and “documentaries” that spread unverified claims with an agenda. But in our recent era, everything changed when a conspiracy theorist became elected President. Prior to Trump taking office, he was already spreading the Barack Obama birther conspiracy. With all his “fake news” rhetoric, the distrust he was sewing in the mainstream media, before and during his time in office, was so effective that people who operated outside these channels began to gain credibility simply because they opposed the party line. People like Alex Jones and websites like 4Chan were able to fill the gap created by this confusion and offer an alternative narrative in a convincing, persuasive way. These people come to be seen as credible not so much because their followers think they’re necessarily telling the truth or right about everything, but because they’re willing to be skeptical about what the official version of events is. Someone like Joe Rogan has managed to maintain a mainstream appeal not by spouting conspiracy theories exactly, but by being seen as this open-minded middle ground who’s willing to have the conversation with all sides. And while on the surface this may seem like a good quality to have, it has ended up with Rogan platforming theories that are provably false.
So because these people have these huge platforms now, they are able to hoover up the theories that start out in the murkier corners of the internet. QAnon and Pizzagate, both of which began circulating on the message board 4Chan, are now firmly in the mainstream because of the credibility they’ve been given by people like Trump, Jones, Rogan, and others.
What’s interesting is that these self-styled “truth tellers” have also been reflected in fictional stories and pop culture, and often in those reflections, they are proved to be correct. Woody Harrelson’s Charlie in disaster film 2012 is about a crackpot radio host living off-grid, but he is the only one who knows exactly what’s going on. In 2022’s Moonfall, John Bradley’s character starts as this fringe academic who believes the moon isn’t a planet, but a so-called “megastructure”, and again, not only is he validated by the film, but he’s eventually martyred by it. These depictions deliberately challenge our preconceptions of these characters and invite us to consider whether they’re as crazy as they seem, or whether there’s a more sinister reason that what they’re saying gets dismissed.
SEPARATING FICTION FROM NON-FICTION
It’s not that conspiracy theories have gotten any less crazy, but that a lot of the time they use forms we’re, rightly or wrongly, used to associating with accuracy. Documentaries are as prone to directorial manipulation as any thriller, but because it’s real life being depicted, with experts speaking as “non-fiction” voices to verify the facts, people often take what’s said as the truth without any further interrogation.
In fact, in the modern era, many of the most influential documentaries do have a clear perspective or argument. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine in 2002 (and all of Moore’s work to follow) and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 stood out because of how they put together the facts to support a thesis that spoke to people. The massive rise of viral video essays over the 2010s also contributed to a savvier mainstream understanding of how to combine facts and evidence to build arguments.
Yet over time, the documentary form is becoming less and less beholden to facts or objectivity at all. Sometimes this is fairly harmless through clearly biased variety, like the self-promotional documentary or self-exploitation documentary. Other times it leads to the “documentary” with a clear political or ideological aim of presenting only one highly filtered side of the story.
Matt Walsh’s What Is A Woman? presents itself as a rigorous scientific investigation into the coherence of gender ideology, and himself as a sensible voice amid a lot of pseudo-experts, but a cursory fact check reveals a lot of his statements to be inaccurate. Clearly, they’re all serving a particular worldview: Walsh has publicly voiced his own very old-fashioned, and pretty dangerous views on gender norms
The film 2000 Mules runs with the story that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, using information from the widely discredited election group True The Vote. But NPR’s Shannon Bond writes that despite the film’s slick graphics, “the maps don’t actually correspond to the alleged data.”
Similarly, Mikki Willis’ film Plandemic surged in popularity in the early days of Covid-19, shared by notable doctors, politicians, and celebrities, despite the scientific testimony in the video having come from a doctor who’d been widely discredited
The video was eventually removed, but by that time the damage was done, and that’s the biggest problem. We see the same thing has happened with various anti-semitic conspiracy theories over the years, most of which can be traced back to a fabricated 1903 Russian publication called The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. The Atlantic’s Steven J. Zipperstein argues that “The Protocols is not, purportedly, mere narration of a diabolical plot—it’s evidence of one. It projects authority by obscuring its authorship, not unlike various religious texts—or, to use a much more recent and pertinent example, the anonymous dispatches that form the foundation of QAnon.”
The explosion in popularity of the true crime genre has also gone a long way in creating this conspiratorial culture. Documentaries like Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel give legitimate platforms to these conspiracy theorists and provide another outlet for ordinary people who already have distrust in our institutions. The irony is in spreading this distrust in mainstream media, these documentaries don’t provide clarity but instead, cause chaos. Once they are fact-checked, it’s usually easy to know what to believe. But now the problem of misinformation is so out of control, whose responsibility should it be to do that work?
HOW MISINFORMATION SPREADS
So how does misinformation actually spread? Stanford’s Edmund L. Andrews likens it to an actual virus, saying that the propagation of fake and harmful stories via social media bots can create such an overload of that information that people are effectively worn down, to the point where they believe it as truth
The problem is that misinformation online is rife even in places that feel pretty harmless. Similarly things like deepfake technology and A.I are now so commonplace that it can be initially very difficult to tell the difference between them and the real thing. UK photographer Siobhan Walker went viral for her A.I art images that were intended to depict working-class areas of Glasgow in the 1980s.
It’s easy to see how these things that could be intended for parody or artistic purposes could simply become embedded in the culture at face value as we see with conspiracy theories. One of the main theories that went viral in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic was that rich people had access to a special vaccine before anyone else, something that was then alluded to at the start of Glass Onion “You won’t be needing that anymore.” “I won’t?” “You’re good.”
It’s one thing for bots to be spreading conspiracies, but when these are disseminated by official accounts and powerful people, why wouldn’t you believe them?
The saying goes that you can’t close the door once the horse has bolted, and right now it feels like horses are bolting everywhere you look. Today, seemingly anyone, even poorly informed non-experts, can claim that authoritative voice, provided they package what they’re saying in the right way.
Conspiracy theories are born out of skepticism, and in truth, it’s good to be skeptical. History is full of stories where the publicized truth of an event doesn’t match up to what really happened.
But we need to apply that same level of skepticism to the conspiracy theorists too. A recent study from MIT showed that increased digital literacy led to more people being able to discern between real and fake news, and there are increased calls for this to be taught to young people from an early age. That’s the positive here. Fake news may spread like a virus, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way we can’t take measures to avoid it.
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