With a simple click of a button, information can be shared globally with millions. But, what happens when information becomes misinformation? What happens when fake information masquerades online, in social media, in purported news outlets and begins to blur the lines of what is fact and truth versus opinion or lie? According to a recent Pew Research poll, 50% of respondents said that the spreading of “fake news” makes them more worried than terrorism, racism, violent crime, illegal immigration and sexism. And they believe the problem will worsen. When this information is then posted online, a consumer may not be aware that reality has been altered and now takes this misinformation as truth. Responsibility for a remedy lies both with the sender and receiver. We ask faculty to explore fake news through an academic lens.
The first thing we need to do is define fake news. First, there is misinformation. This is wrong or misleading information that is published, but it was a mistake. Next, you have disinformation, which is deliberately misleading information. Fake news is disinformation disguised as coming from a news source.
But this isn’t a new problem. Misinformation is as old as journalism. The fear is misinformation or disinformation is going to deceive me into believing things that aren’t true.
How do we go about distinguishing fact from fiction? There is some technology out there that can help. But, the most important thing is you must look at the source. A true journalist has little interest in doing fake news. Most journalists adhere to principles of journalism, and they want to keep their jobs.
But there are political actors out there where this may not be the case. For example, politicians and special interest groups have competing agendas. And now what I’m seeing is a new trend. In the past, there was an interest in limiting access to information to the public. Now, it has turned toward over-saturating people with information so much so that it’s overwhelming.
I think the takeaway for everyone is you have to go to verifiable journalistic sources. You have to do the extra work and ask yourself, “Who is this person giving me this information? Do they have motives or agendas?” If so, I should be aware of that as I am getting the information. Then I can make my own conclusion about the quality or intentions of the information I’m consuming.
While what we could term “fake photographs” have existed since the not-so-distant inception of the medium in the mid-19th century, retouched and inauthentic documents became more prevalent with the growth of mass media. The purposes and uses of doctored photographs became increasingly tied to those in power — politically, economically or culturally. Examples run the gamut from leaders being removed from political photographs to the pyramids being inched closer together to accommodate a National Geographic cover.
With Photoshop came further opportunities to mold reality, but this tool also began to
educate the public further about the multiple ways in which photographs can lie. For those who have been paying attention, the rise in amateur applications of “deepfake” technology
that uses artificial intelligence to create realistic scenes is no surprise, but it certainly does represent a threat. As an artist, I see the endless creative applications for the technology. As an educator and a citizen, I see further need to continue this conversation around authenticity and complicate the definitions we have for appropriation.
In general, today’s art students gain both the skill of recognizing retouched photographs and the ability to apply ethical practices to their work. However, in both public and professional realms, examining the document itself is only the beginning. The technologies have changed, but the reasons images are manipulated remain largely the same when it comes to politics — gaining advantage and ensuring favorable posterity among those political aims. We now need to train ourselves and our students to go even further beyond the images — to become investigative journalists of sorts, since we can’t expect sources to reveal their own biases. This, of course, is beyond what we as artists are trained to do, and it has put some strain on my own time and energy. However, artists have long been exposed to critical theory and have used it to expose and challenge systems of oppression and injustice. While the pace may have become a bit more exhausting, we are continuing this work.
When it comes to the idea of fake news, I don’t think we are doomed by any means. We just have to be more vigilant about how we consume the information we are receiving.
So what is the role of the consumer? I think we really must slow down and not take everything we see at face value. If something seems fishy, it probably is. We must read past the headline.
When I teach my communication classes I tell my students, verify and look at where the information is coming from. Always look at the quotes and who is saying it. Does the person have an agenda? If so, you must keep that in mind. Second, check the URL and make sure the website is reputable. Three, look at the “About” page on the website. That will give you an idea of who the creator is and what the goal of the site is. Four, especially for photos, do a Google image search. That will give you an idea if an image has been edited in Photoshop, cropped or altered in any way.
More importantly, the rise of social media has spurred much of what is going on. I believe the big-tech companies absolutely have a responsibility to monitor what is being put out there. Laws have not kept up with technology. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, you are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts. And people need to know the difference. When the media, and news sources, are competing to be first, I believe there is something lost in that rush. As a consumer, we need to be diligent and work a little bit harder when receiving information.
There is always something just out of frame. Even an unaltered photo or video can depict a fiction depending on how the person taking it sets it up and displays it. John Grierson was the first person to use the term “documentary” in 1926. He described documentaries as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Sometimes I think people conflate “documentary” with the “news” and expect documentaries to be more “objective.”
Many documentary filmmakers acknowledge that there is no such thing as objectivity. Wherever you choose to put the camera is fraught with choices relating to perspective, privilege and power dynamics.
For me, it’s just an acknowledgement that I am making this film, versus someone else who would have made it very differently. Two filmmakers with the same story, facts and characters would make two very different films.
The question I’d ask: Is one of them more or less true?