It’s been called many things: the Golden Age of Fraud, the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories, the Age of Fake News. Call this moment what you will, but one thing is clear: studying fabrication has perhaps never been more pressing in US history. Trump’s administration has brought with it an onslaught of lies, from the turnout figures at the 2017 inauguration to the sugar-coating of its family-separation policy; then its lies started killing people en masse with the advent of COVID-19. The blatant months-long governmental repudiation of lockdowns and mask-wearing has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and counting. It’s time not to simply turn away from the false, or to try to combat it with truth, but to study it, regardless of the election results of November 2020.
This Special Focus section provides models and methodologies for studying not only persistent falsity in the digital age but also the limits of its representability in the media that aims to thwart it. As a corrective, the authors here immerse themselves in the realm of the false, tracing its technological and cultural contours to tease out the power it holds. Several of the articles assert that even documentaries that purport to combat the false belie their means of production or mislead viewers by using troubling framing devices, producing their own fictions, in a sense.
The title “Powers of the False” is derived from Gilles Deleuze’s description of post–World War II art cinema in his Cinema 2: The Time Image. This Special Focus section retools Deleuze’s concept to emphasize the falsity of a new order in which the false is not an idealized entryway into creative fabulation—political or otherwise—but rather a structuring incoherence that has resulted from living with information technologies post-2016. It underscores the seductive and irresistible gravitational pull of falsity, which has created infinite relays of fake news and conspiracy theories that turn everyday users into networked hives of propagandists. Spun from these misinformation campaigns at an accelerating rate are the hate forums of white supremacists on 4chan and Reddit, QAnon-linked conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate,” and social divisiveness as seen in phony Black Lives Matter accounts, among other effects. White-collar scandals have also become regular events, some linked to Trump, others not. Corrupt investigations and light sentences for the perpetrators symbolize how whiteness is the ultimate legal leverage, if not the financial and racial jump start needed to become a high-power swindler in the first place. Such is the backdrop to the works charted in this Special Focus section.
The authors go where falsity leads them—into the financial infrastructures of social-media companies, the psychologizing of white-collar crime, the gendering of a tech-industry wunderkind, and the conspiracy theories of a fallen and alienated film star. Topiary Landberg and I critique the vexed truth-telling frameworks of contemporary documentary practice and argue that documentarians who parse high-profile scams, confident they are (and are being read as) on the good side of history, actually allow their own biases and projections to cloud their larger aims. Nilo Couret’s piece tracks the Fyre Festival debacle, not primarily through the question of representation (as other writing on the Fyre documentaries has done) but through the economics of credit that cut across the business models of Billy McFarland’s Magnises credit card, Jerry Media, Vice Media, and Netflix. Dolores McElroy’s piece has an unusual relation to the rest, in part because her subject, Sean Young, seems so distant from the worlds of entrepreneurship and conning that the other pieces occupy. However, McElroy proposes a complicated model of how conspiracy theories, supposedly entrenched in a paranoid position, offer strangely reparative relief for believers.
Together, these short essays attest to the ways in which media studies might begin to unpack the true implications of the false in the Trump era and beyond.
LOVING THE LIE: ELIZABETH HOLMES, THOMAS EDISON, AND ALEX GIBNEY
S. Topiary Landberg
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