Let me begin with four fake truths that I hold to be self-evident. What follows is their brief elaboration and my suggestion for a shared effort to produce an informed, digitally literate citizenry. For the real internet is a fake, the fake news is very real, and thus Trump is indeed our rightful internet president.

  1. Today’s internet is built on, with, and through an unruly sea of lies, deceptions, and distortions, as well as a few certainties, cables, and algorithms.
  2. This week’s viral-wonder—the crisis of “fake news” in the wake of the 2016 presidential election—is a logical and necessary outgrowth of the web’s sordid infrastructure, prurient daily pleasures, and neoliberal political economy.
  3. Today’s saccharine hand-wringing and the too-late fixes erupting from the mouthpieces for the corporate, media, and political interests responsible for this mess are as bogus as Lonelygirl15.
  4. Today’s media consumer cannot trust the internet, its news, or networks—fake or otherwise. Given the wretched state of today’s internet, skeptical, self-aware interaction with digital data is the critical foundation upon which democracy may be maintained.

***

As a longtime scholar and maker of fake media, including a fake documentary entitled The Watermelon Woman (1996), I am sorry that our world and its internet have come to this moment. While I can attest that many of us within a new field sometimes called Critical Internet Studies certainly saw this coming, I am also certain there is much that scholars, students, and the news media can do. (The reading list below created by students in Tara McPherson’s graduate course on “Activism in the Digital Age” at the University of Southern California is just one example).

My own work in Critical Internet Studies has focused on fakes and fakery. In the 1990s, many of us in independent and mainstream film culture alike, celebrated the sweet powers of the format:

The politics of gender and multiculturalism, with their prickly debates about who is entitled to tell whose story, are twitted with such good-humored cheek in Cheryl Dunye’s mock documentary, ”The Watermelon Woman,” that feathers will undoubtedly be ruffled.

In 2006, I was still heralding the form’s productive capacities:

Fake documentaries do and undo the documentary form, the film’s subject (theme, topic, storyline, characters), and the moral and social orders. They are formally rich as well as uniquely situated to reveal the certainties, as well as the lies, about history, identity, and truth that have sustained both documentary and the world it records.

However, as my scholarly and activist sights moved to the internet—as did those of so many citizens and scholars—my taste for fakery as a powerful tool for self-aware estrangement, “good-humored cheek,” or critical distance and (post)modernist attention to form became increasingly more circumspect. In writing about fakeness itself as a foundational element of YouTube in 2009, I bemoaned the chilling effects of Barack Obama being heralded as the “YouTube President.”

Obama’s YouTube jam goes like this: the serious usually marks the funny, but in his version, get this: the serious is… the serious. Really. YouTube is all irony, all the time, and our YouTube President wittily plays it against itself. Sincerely folks, on YouTube, who came first, Tina Fey or Sarah Palin? I think you know the answer. On YouTube, what gets watched more: Obama’s fire-side chats, Obama GirlObama on Ellen, or Obama via Will.i.am? Yes, we can. Irony-free? “No, you can’t.”

President Obama, speaking recently about Facebook’s fake news problem, continued along this perhaps too-open vein: “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”

In 2009, as if in direct conversation with today’s tired President, and the dilemma that I had regretfully anticipated, I suggested:

that there are real perils for a visual culture (and the real it is or will be) where irony becomes so dominant as to be invisible. Irony, and the fake documentary that often packages it, has served long and well as a modernist distancing device, sometimes productively enabling a structure for radical critique. As YouTube makes this style omnipresent, however, its function changes, its edges soften, the firm ground of the resolute double deconstructs beneath our feet. We are in ironic free-fall. We plunge into a viewing posture of disbelief, uncertainty, and cynicism about everything on YouTube, about watching it, about believing.

Only seven years later, it appears that the ironic free-fall I claimed might result from over-enjoying our first YouTube President has indeed contributed to the making of our even newer internet president, who recently broadcast his own executive remarks on YouTube. According to The New York Times:The video underscored the extent to which Mr. Trump intends to try to navigate around the traditional newspaper and television media outlets as he seeks to communicate his message to the public.”

***

FOUR TRUTHS ABOUT FAKE NEWS

Given the fake news, YouTube newsflashes, and daily early-morning Twitter bulletins that have become our new diplomatic reality, I propose the following four truths about fake news to be self-evident. They describe what the internet has become, what it has produced, and what we might do about it.

Truth #1:

Today’s internet is built on, with, and through an unruly sea of lies, deceptions, and distortions, as well as a few certainties, cables, and algorithms.

At first blush, it may appear that here I am referring to the rather benign oceans of user-generated content forming the meat of today’s internet: the half-truths of tweets, the fix-ups of Photoshop, the embellishments of Facebook updates, our insincere thumbs-up and self-serving re-posts. But this isn’t the half of it. Bots post as tweeters. Corporations pose as consumers. Outright lies might be fact-checked and yet still saturate and linger in virtual space. Propaganda stands in for journalism and YouTube videos become presidential addresses surrounded by ads and suggestions to watch SNL, and “Racist White Woman Trump Rant in Chicago Store 11/23/16.” But these visible manifestations of my first truth direct our attention to something else we know to be true that remains often harder to see: the internet’s hidden corporate architecture and governmental backbone. The foundational lies of today’s internet—that it is a public good rather than a monetized commodity; that it promotes or is even interested in freedom of expression and civil discourse; that our actions there are activism rather than consumerism—are papered over by facetious platitudes. The fake news, in other words, is not new, and it should not come as a surprise. In reality, the internet is primarily a place of censorship, capitalism, surveillance, distraction, and entertainment: the perfect incubator for fake news and all that might result from it.

Truth #2

This day’s viral wonder—the crisis of “fake news”—is a logical and necessary outgrowth of the web’s sordid infrastructure, prurient daily pleasures, and neo-liberal political economy.

Fake things abound on the internet—as do true ones, to be sure—because its current infrastructure is based upon amoral principles that do not measure, value, or correct for  candor or integrity. Rather, popularity, volume, consumption, sales, and entertainment rule the day and the form. As I argued in my 2011 on-line video-book Learning from YouTube, while there’s nothing wrong with any of these qualities per se, they are not the best forums to sustain and promote education, and they may be even less well equipped to support news, elections, democracies, or civil societies.

Truth #3

Today’s saccharine hand-wringing and the too-late fixes erupting from mouthpieces for the corporate, media, and political interests responsible for this mess are as bogus as Lonelygirl15.

For those who didn’t catch it, this is a reference to one of the first viral sensations of the early days of YouTube, a very popular video-blogger by the name of Lonelygirl15 who, quite late into her fame, was exposed as a fake produced by a professional production company (the better to please you, my pretty). In writing about the early days of YouTube, I explained that one effect of early viewers knowing that core YouTube fare might be or even was probably faked was a cynical (if “fun”) mode of reception definitive of the medium and its moment: that everything was fake, or at least could be. While a converse response to this universal media skepticism has found itself today in a twee return to the sincere (and even sometimes a sincere return to the sincere), this heartfelt search for trust sits in stark relief against the seedy untruths that litter the internet stage.

Truth #4

Today’s media consumer cannot trust the internet, its news, or networks—fake or otherwise. A skeptical, self-aware interaction with digital data is the critical foundation upon which any democracy must be founded and maintained, given the wretched state of the internet.

I know that I sound bleak. But in fact, a self-aware attention to the current conditions of the internet must become our final and most important self-evident truth moving forward. A very serious project of digital media literacy is critical for our democracy, and is a crucial place where scholars and our students, regardless of our fields, can make pivotal contributions. As citizens, we need to understand how the internet works—technologically, financially, legally, socially. We scholars and educators need to teach and learn how to better read digital media, to understand who makes it, owns it, and circulates it. We need to ask how and why it is structured and visualized as it is, and what truths and mistruths it states. We need to learn how and where to demand real and better news. We need to produce context for the rudderless fragments of information that circulate online, as well as the forums where we can share our findings, activities, and practices.

The university is one such place to build and share digital media literacy. However, given the current, fractured state of our democracy—where many have become suspicious of higher education, and just as many are potentially seeing their access to it being threatened—the internet might just be the sincerest place for us to engage in its own, very real critique.

***

READING LIST

Created by Graduate Students in “Activism and Digital Culture,” University of Southern California, Department of Cinema, Professor Tara McPherson

I was invited to give a guest lecture in Tara McPherson’s USC seminar on activism and digital culture on November 22, 2016. I asked them to work with me to engage in the project of contributing to an informed, digitally literate citizenry, by building a reading list to accompany this article. Here are the readings they wish to share.

  1. “Triumph of the Will”: Document or Artifice?, by David B. Hinton
    What struck me about the way that Trump supporters view Trump is how similar it is to the ways in which Hitler was also viewed. Leni Riefenstahl was instrumental in creating the spectacle and artifice around Hitler and the Nazi party, and the ways that Trump has uses fake news mirrors some of that (even beyond the similarities of some of his proposed policies).  Recommended by Jennifer Jee Cho, MA Candidate, Cinema & Media Studies, USC
  2. The Meme of Memes: Information as Objects, by Antonio López
    This article addresses the ideas of memes.  It looks at how we can classify them, how they function, and why they insidiously find their way into our collective psyches. It is interesting re: the figure of Pepe, its dissemination, and what the corporate media then took as its meaning. Recommended by Amalia Charles, M.A. Candidate, Cinema & Media Studies, USC
  3. From Home to Public Forum: Media Events and the Public Sphere, by Barbie Zelizer
    I think that consideration of the media as a whole is important when considering the rise you are claiming of the fake news. It is important to consider not just the role of the viewer in relation to spectatorship of the news but also to track the decline of certain types of viewership of the news, and how viewership of “fake news” diverges from an older form of spectatorship. Recommended by Alia Haddad, PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies, USC
  4. Talking Race and Cyberspace: An Interview with Lisa Nakamura, by Lisa Nakamura and Geert Lovink
    I think the opening speaks to its utility: “Nakamura’s work shows how the Internet, despite all its claims to the alternative, remains a part of dominant visual culture.” Recommended by Harry Gilbert, M.A. Student, Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies, USC
  5. Protocol, Control, and Networks, by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker
    Via Deleuze, Galloway and Thacker map our meaningful counter-protocols of current networked life. Recommended by Harry Gilbert
  6. On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge, by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
    Recommended by Harry Gilbert
  7. Race Racing: Four Theses on Race and Intensity, by Amit Rai
    Amit Rai considers speed, media, and race: “If what I have argued is a sensible shift in the politics and theorization of race toward the common notion of race racing as a diagram of speeds and slownesses, intensive rates and gradients internal to manifold assemblages of technology and perception, then these theses should perform an experimentation on race itself. This experimentation would continuously mutate, never resembling itself, changing the metric of its own measure through a resonance that moves beyond its term.” Recommended by Harry Gilbert
  8. Framing the Internet in the Arab Revolutions: Myth Meets Modernity, by Miriyam Aouragh
    The attached article supports the idea of needing a more critical citizen engagement with the internet. Something else that this article does in a very understated way is point out that the relationship between the internet and produced fakeness/realness changes based on where/when we are in the world. Your op-ed points out that, in a Western/American context, the internet is our source for producing, consuming, and sharing fake content. But it’s just as important to note that the internet can become a place of very real Western (re)configurations of non-Western narratives, cultures, and social and political structures, effectively acting as a tool for the production of neocolonialism and its real effects. Recommended by Mary Michael
  9. After Politics/After Television: Veep, Digimodernism, and the Running Gag of Government, by Joe Conway
    Joe Conway makes reference to Alan Kirby and his dystopian concept of “digimodernism”, where the “apparently real” is the dominant aesthetic, “one where the knowing pastiches and parodies of postmodernism cease to register because they require a broad foundation of past cultural knowledge that has been leveled into non-meaning”. Some of his descriptions of digimodernism are helpful to think about fake news and how fake have lost its subversive potential. Recommended by Emilia Yang, Ph.D. Student in Media Arts and Practice
  10. The Quantum Paradox of Truthiness: Satire, Activism, and the Postmodern Condition, by James E. Caron
    Caron cites Geoffrey Baym’s concept of “discursive integration,” a concept he offers as a way of speaking about, understanding, and acting within the world defined by the permeability of form and the fluidity of content. “Discourses of news, politics, entertainment, and marketing have grown deeply inseparable; the languages and practices of each have lost their distinctiveness and are being melded into previously unimagined combinations.”Both of these authors are part of a Special Issue of the Studies in American Humor: American Satire and the Postmodern Condition. I see the problem of fake news as a historical trend where on one side news has accommodated to feed what sells and what people want to read (click bait), and on the other side as Alex mentions, we are not aware of the complexity of the Internet, its politics and interests. I also recommend Evgeny Morozov’s critiques like The Internet,” Recommended by Emilia Yang, PhD Student in Media Arts and Practice
  11. In Transit, by Claudia Rankine
    While I teach in a cinema school, my doctoral degree is from an English Department, and poetry wields a particular language that has spoken its own truths to me across the years.  This fall, I have found myself turning to poetry again and again, searching for words that might ground meaning beyond the swirls of information that were scrolling across my many screens. Although this piece by Claudia Rankine was published nearly twenty-five years ago, it speaks powerfully to our present. Recommended by Tara McPherson, Professor, Department of Cinema, University of Southern California

For some historical context on fake news, look to nineteenth-century “Yellow Journalism.”

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Resources

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