A film about fake news might seem like a tough sell given the nonstop political discourse of the last few years, but HBO’s latest documentary offers a new take on the issue.
“After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” which premieres on HBO March 19, takes a more personal look at the subject by examining the human cost of malicious disinformation, rather than relitigating the actual conspiracy theories. Yes, Pizzagate, conspiracies about the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, and several other recent well-known conspiracies are extensively covered in the documentary, but “After Truth” is primarily focused on the victims of those intentional falsehoods.
While the documentary prioritizes victims over conspiracies, the goal is still very much to combat the fake news epidemic, and the project offers insights that even those thoroughly exhausted by years of news coverage on disinformation will find interesting. IndieWire spoke to director Andrew Rossi and CNN’s Brian Stelter, who served as executive producer, about creating the documentary, the ongoing fight against disinformation campaigns, and why it was critical for the project to focus on the people who are most impacted by fake news stories.
“When you try to debunk these false stories, the people who believe them double down on the lies,” Rossi said. “What we do with this documentary is show that there is a human cost and appeal to individuals’ good natures to help them empathize with the victims of these stories.”
While fake news and distrust of the mainstream media spiked since the 2016 presidential election, neither of those issues began with President Donald J. Trump, who is conspicuously (and intentionally) absent throughout most of the 90-minute film. The first falsehoods “After Truth” tackles are the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theories, which centered on a 2015 military training exercise in Texas and several other states. Conspiracy theorists, including InfoWars owner Alex Jones, spread lies that the innocuous exercise was a cover for the United States military to invade Texas, with misinformation ranging from nearby vacant Walmarts being turned into concentration camps with interconnecting underground tunnels, to the training intended for enacting martial law. As the documentary notes, Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director, said in 2018 that the Jade 15 conspiracy theories were promoted by Russians wanting to control information.
Though fake news is primarily propagated by right-wing figures and entities, conservatives are hardly the only ones who engage in disinformation. “After Truth” also examines the 2017 Senate special election in Alabama, which saw Roy Moore, an accused child molester with ties to white nationalists, narrowly lose to Democratic candidate Doug Jones. The documentary details the efforts of a Democratic operation (not associated with Jones) to emulate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, this time in favor of Jones. Like Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, a bumbling conspiracy theorist duo prominently featured in the documentary’s final 30 minutes, the Democrats involved in the Alabama project justify their own actions, arguing that it is a “moral imperative” to use misinformation. Fake news is pervasive, and it is not constrained by political ideology.
Combating fake news is easier when the issue is not seen as political, according to Stelter, which is why the documentary’s Pizzagate coverage focuses on the harm it caused to ordinary people, rather than that the conspiracy theory alleged that the Democratic Party was involved in human trafficking and child sex trade.
Stelter stressed that most individuals want the truth and are generally willing to trust media that is not explicitly political. “When you move the conversation out of politics people let their defenses down and get more honest with one another,” Stelter said. “When there’s a tornado warning in town and a meteorologist is trying to keep you safe you don’t say that your local weather station is fake news. We’re not as polarized as it seems our politics are. Most people want to want to know what’s real and what’s true, including a lot of people who voted for Trump.”
Of course, no media project, HBO documentaries included, is going to stop conspiracy theorists such as Jones, Burkman, and Jerome Corsi from propagating hatred and lies, nor will it motivate executives of social platforms such as Facebook, extensively covered by the documentary, to firmly moderate misinformation. The conspiracists featured in the documentary are unrepentant and, in many cases, blatantly operating to financially exploit their audiences.
“I plainly asked Jack Burkman what his feelings on fake news were and he admitted to using it like it was a chemical weapon,” Rossi said. “This is a refrain from a lot of people you hear who use fake news, that ‘it’s a war’ and they justify it on those terms. Somehow their very dark view of the world empowers them to talk about this in some sort of pseudo-philosophical way and I thought it was important to include that perspective because we need to know what we’re up against.”
While it may be futile to reason with such conspiracy theorists, Rossi and Stelter agreed that stressing the real-world impacts of fake news, rather than just its journalistic and academic implications, would encourage individuals to have more faith in fact-based information.
“There’s not enough attention on the victims, the everyday people who are confused by misinformation, what news to believe, or are misinformed or misled by bad faith actors,” Stelter said. “Certainly, people who read and view disinformation are victims of it, whether they want to be deceived and are going with it, or are confused by what they see. What I think we’re doing with this film is what’s happening in the real world while Facebook executives, academics, and regulators debate what should be done.”