A documentary film review by Nolan Higdon
HBO’s After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News benefits from strong storytelling but falls short of addressing the central problems associated with fake news. Director Andrew Rossi’s journey through the politicized world of fake news provides an illuminating and engaging introduction to the topic. The film effectively utilizes intimate storytelling about specific fake news producers and victims, most notably those involved in the Pizzagate shooting, to engender viewers’ consideration of real-world impacts of fake news. Pizzagate refers to the 2016 shooting of the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. The shooter, relying on internet fake news, came to believe that a child abuse ring run by the Democratic Party was located in the dining establishment. The documentary follows the restaurant employees and patrons as they grapple with the horror unleashed by the shooting.
Rossi deserves credit for demonstrating some of the ways in which fake news is created and disseminated. The most distinct example documents in real-time how conservative internet personality Jacob Wohl spotted a bus, and moments later captured and posted photos online with captions claiming that the bus was full of George Soros funded protesters. The filmmaker documents how Wohl’s post, which was complete conjecture, spread quickly online. The Wohl segment is part of larger commentary about the information war on the internet.
However, beyond his critique of self-interested actors on the internet, the documentary misses the opportunity to demonstrate how fake news infects all mediums, people, and organizations. In fact, the documentary only offers a partisan critique of fake news. Although, it rightly asserts that, until recently, left leaning influencers have not been comfortable vocalizing their use of false content on the internet; it insinuates that, historically, right leaning press outlets were solely responsible for the production and spread of fake news. However, as I detail in my forthcoming book, The Anatomy of Fake News, this misses a much larger history of liberal leaning press outlets such as MSNBC and political organizations associated with the Democratic Party engaging in fake news production just as those on the right have done at Fox News and the Republican Party for decades.
Similarly, the documentary offers a narrow analysis of nation states that produce and disseminate fake news. Obviously, a documentary cannot cite every fake news producer, and this film is no exception. However, while the film correctly notes that countries like Russia are taking part in a global information war aimed at American elections, among other targets, it neglects to explore the crucial role the US has played in the global information war. The invisibility of the most powerful nation on earth disseminating fake news is a stark omission given its long history of fake news production and proliferation of propaganda.
Rather than provide a genuine understanding of fake news, the film serves to lionize the corporate media and chide their independent competition on the internet. This narrative comes at the expense of addressing issues about the relationship between the corporate press and fake news. In a seemingly honest segment, the documentary derides social media companies for the ways in which they have contributed to our larger epistemological crisis. However, the documentary’s critique of the internet is part of a larger argument that positions the corporate press as the last hope for invigorating democracy and establishing the supremacy of truth. Not incidentally, the documentary’s executive producer is Brian Stelter of CNN. That may help explain why the documentary defends the veracity of the corporate press’ reporting and treats their employees as victims of fake news criticisms, despite studies such Networked Propaganda by Harvard University’ Yochai Benkler and colleagues, that found corporate news misinformation, especially on television, was more responsible for voting patterns in 2016 than internet news.
Furthermore, as I cover in The Anatomy of Fake News, the HBO documentary’s adulation for the corporate news media ignores the very recent history in which the corporate press disseminated false content regarding Russiagate, the Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, and not all that long ago, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, just to name a few. In short, the documentary ignores the well documented history of the corporate media literally producing fake news itself. Simply blaming the internet, despite the many ways it contributes to our current crisis, does not change that reality.
Worse, the focus on corporate media outlets as the solution to fake news distracts from the meaningful exploration of education in general and the media literacy field specifically in solving this crisis. There is quality journalism, but a substantial portion of the population is subjected to fake news from a variety of sources. This suggests that the simple existence of good journalism will not eradicate or mitigate the influence of fake news if people do not know how to recognize it. The public needs the skills to delineate between false news and fact-based journalism. Media literacy education provides that much needed foundation. However, press outlets are right to be wary of this solution because effective media literacy means analyzing and deconstructing all media, including the corporate press, as well as social media and their supposed “fact checkers.”
I advocate and outline such a path for achieving a more media literate society in The Anatomy of Fake News. While viewers of HBO’s After Truth are treated to a heartwarming story about how the restaurant targeted in Pizzagate, Comet Ping Pong Pizza, remained open despite the violence and homophobia engendered by fake news, the questions concerning media literacy education and the shortcomings of the press were left out of the documentary.
Although the touching story successfully engages in the capitalist practice of conflating business operations with solutions to civic challenges, it in no way resembles a viable answer to the problems associated with fake news. For that, I suggest Rossi and Stetler read The Anatomy of Fake News and perhaps watch the latest documentary by Project Censored, United States of Distraction: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, which addresses the dire need for critical media literacy education and specifically includes the main critiques regarding how best to fight fake news noted in this review.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Alexis Figueroa, Lucas Martin, and Mickey Huff for all of their help on this review.
Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and university lecturer of history and media studies. Higdon’s areas of concentration include youth culture, news media history, and critical media literacy. He sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publications include United States of Distraction (co-author with Mickey Huff, City Lights, 2019) and The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education (University of California Press, 2020). He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast with “Dr. Dreadlocks” Nicholas Baham III, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a contributor to Truthout and Counter-punch; and a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.