Alan Zendell, January 29, 2021
In 1983, Woody Allen created a fake documentary called Zelig, after its main character. Before the age of sophisticated computer imagery, Allen used a variety of movie making techniques to seamlessly insert his character into real scenes of historical film footage. Comic book writer Will Pfeifer of Catwoman fame described Zelig as “a completely convincing portrait of the 1920s and 1930s…When we see Zelig being serenaded by Fanny Brice or standing by Babe Ruth in batting practice, or disrupting a Nazi rally by waving at his girlfriend, you’d swear it really happened.”
Pfeifer was right. Audiences were amazed by how real those fake scenes seemed. Interspersed with fake commentary by real historians commenting on the life of the fictitious Leonard Zelig, and some excellent deadpan comedy, the film was brilliantly crafted. But some viewers noted that it was also an ominous warning for the future. Creating a mock-documentary was great comic theater, but if Allen, using the low-tech tools available in the early 1980s could pull it off so convincingly, what if those same techniques were refined and applied to things like the news, evidence presented in court proceedings or National Security pronouncements?
That question was echoed by many futuristic writers of the time. With the rise of the Internet, many writers predicted that over time, objective news reporting would be swamped by unvetted crowd-based websites spouting heavily skewed opinions and outright lies. The age of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite would be replaced by political spin, conspiracy mongers, and alternate realities shaped by people with deep pockets and a strong dislike for the established order.
The art of lying convincingly became a national pastime. In the 1990s we saw striking examples in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and in Bill Clinton’s impeachment. When Clinton looked into the camera and said, “I never had sex with that woman,” everyone on the planet knew he was lying. Likewise, when George W. Bush began the misinformation campaign about weapons of mass destruction that led to our involvement in a nineteen-year war in the Middle East, virtually the entire Congress was fooled into supporting the effort.
It’s not that we naively believed politicians always told the truth in the past, but the ability to disseminate false information enhanced by rapidly developing technology had opened an era of audacious lies of a magnitude not previously seen. The Obama Birther Conspiracy was the next example. The perpetrators knew it was all fakery, but millions were convinced by it. Extremists at both ends of the political spectrum, primarily on the far right realized they had a new weapon against which there was no defense.
Many people had become concerned about the ability to falsify information. It was becoming apparent that people could be convinced of almost anything if it came from an authoritative-sounding source, and by the 1980s, computers were as authoritative as it got. I could have written hundreds of false reports, and people would have believed them because they were printed by a computer. Computers can’t lie, but they can be wrong if they’re fed false information.
Roger Ailes and Fox News weaponized this idea and enlisted a telegenic, power-mad narcissist to spread the word. They understood that there was a huge, angry base, a silent majority of right-wing extremists, waiting to be tapped by anyone with the money and brazen unscrupulousness to try. As much as I saw it coming, when senior advisor to the Narcissist in Chief, Kellyanne Conway coined the phrases “fake news” and “alternate facts,” and no amount of pushback by the forces of reason had any effect, I was horrified. Was it really that easy to create a movement based on lies and pandering to the uninformed? With dozens of totally unvetted sources available, all spouting the same nonsense, all covered by the First Amendment right to free speech, where would it end?
We don’t know, and that’s a scary thought. People like Steve Bannon, Rush Limbaugh, and the entire crew of Fox News and AONN are able to create any reality they want to. Fact checkers are a useless joke, their only audience people who already care about the truth. So today, we have QAnon people in Congress, openly inciting disorder and insurrection, and right-wing militias and Nazis openly threatening Congress and state governments. Cheering them on is an insane former president who has demonstrated that there are no limits to either his lust to regain power or his criminality.
How do we combat them in an age in which objective truth no longer exists, when anyone can find support for every crazy belief on countless websites? We can start by demanding integrity from the people we elected to serve us. This is a battle that requires everyone who values democracy to stayed engaged.