When I watched this documentary about fake news last week I didn’t know it would take on such poignant extra relevance.
Ever since the shocking death of George Floyd while under arrest last Monday, and the protests it triggered, fake stories have circulated about what happened, perverting the truth.
There have been rumours online about everyone from billionaire investor George Soros to Vladimir Putin being behind the protests and Floyd actually being alive — along with thousands more, including ones about lizard people that I would rather not repeat because I don’t want to give them credence.
Director Andrew Rossi (who made Page One: Inside the New York Times) and CNN journalist Brian Stelter have both been affected by fake news in their jobs and set out to uncover what is behind it. Although the term “fake news” first appeared in 2014, they begin in 2015, linking the phenomenon to Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination.
That was when a fake story emerged about the Barack Obama administration supposedly detaining political dissidents in Walmart shops, under the guise of military exercise Jade Helm. It may sound far-fetched, but spread by Alex Jones’s Infowars website it gained momentum.
The show rattles through other highlights of the fake news agenda, including Pizzagate, in which a Washington DC restaurant was alleged to be the front for an elite paedophile ring. It’s not just a Right-wing scourge — the Left deployed fake news during the 2017 Alabama senate election campaign.
Through forthright interviews with the people pulling the strings and the victims of fake news, After Truth tries to understand the forces that drive it, but stops shy of offering solutions.
If you want to understand the determination that’s allowing fake news to flourish, watch the interviews with Jack Burkman, this documentary’s antihero. He’s a conservative lobbyist on manoeuvres who has been compared to the lawyer in The Simpsons, Lionel Hutz. He pronounces that truth doesn’t actually exist, while sitting under his giant chandelier. Oof. And the President listens to this man.
Burkman compares fake news to chemical weapons — if you suspect your enemy has them, you’re going to get them yourself regardless of moral judgment, it’s human nature (which is a sad indictment of his view of humanity).
Politics and the fates of thousands of people feels like a game to him. We see him and fellow Trump apparatchik Jacob Wohl trying to discredit Robert Mueller to save Trump in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Thick of It.
The journalists are hamstrung. We hear from reporters at CNN, The Daily Beast and The New York Times who suspect what they’re hearing is wrong and don’t want to report lies but don’t know where to start unpicking it.
While the impulses behind fake news are timeless, it wouldn’t exist on such a scale without the internet. The documentary traces its spread, from its origins on Reddit, 4Chan forums and Infowars, to being reported on Fox News and manufactured in the White House. Rossi and Stelter tell a compelling story — one that you wish was fake news. This has devastating human costs and it appears too big to fail.
After Truth airs on Sky Documentaries tonight at 9pm