[Review] ‘AFTER TRUTH’ – The price is far from all right for this sobering documentary on social media

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

AFTER TRUTH: DISINFORMATION AND THE COST OF FAKE NEWS

TV-MA, 100 minutes.
Director: Andrew Rossi
Cast: Jack Berkman

“[The] time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear and only one half that you see.”

Judging by this quote, taken from “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” writer Edgar Allan Poe was wise beyond his years. And he’s right. More than 150 years after its original publication, the value of facts and its distillation seems tantamount to whoever is behind the microphone or typing away online.

AFTER TRUTH: DISINFORMATION AND THE COST OF FAKE NEWS arrives at a time where the world is on fire. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to much misinformation being funneled through social media and how this “news” can be misconstrued by those who read certain ideas as truth and share it on Facebook or Twitter. This has caused a dangerous domino effect with people hoarding toilet paper, or physically abusing Asians on account of the origins of the Coronavirus, or downplaying the dangers of the airborne disease altogether.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary, which was to have played at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin – an event that was subsequently canceled because of COVID-19 – seems ominously unsettling. Rossi forgoes a lengthy timeline of how we have reached the point we are at now and looks at a series of moments from the past five years that are interconnected in the spread of false information.

2015’s Jade Helm military training exercise in Bastrop County, Texas, was, at worst, a test case scenario of what a drummed-up conspiracy would look like. The gist of the supposed controversy: President Obama was planning to round up rightwing dissenters and put them in camps. Further, an idea had floated out on social media that there was a network of secret tunnels connecting all the Walmarts in Texas, and that the stores would transition to detention holding centers. Totally outlandish, and yet this went from conspiracy blogs to town-hall meetings to even Texas Governor Greg Abbott asking the State Guard to monitor the federal military exercise!

Other episodes include “Pizzagate” in 2016, where several sites falsely implicated members of the Democratic Party and D.C.-based Comet Ping Pong, a family pizza joint, as being part of a pedophile trafficking ring. One man was so convinced by the viral rumors that he decided to investigate for himself. Walking into the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle, he would discharge three shots before being arrested. No one was injured. We also have conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ denial of the Parkland school shooting with the media resorting to using “crisis actors” to recount their horrors on camera.

To illustrate the performance side of social media news fodder, there’s a section with Twitter provoker and conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl and conservative lobbyist Jack Burkman conducting a news conference that looks to smear the reputation of special counsel Robert Mueller with allegations of sexual misconduct. They provide no facts and come off very braggadocious.

By using these past examples of social media disinformation, Rossi readies us for the other shoe to drop. For the 2017 U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, Democrats would plant fake news to win the senate seat. The strategy worked, and the documentary rightfully questions the “at what cost” mentality that develops when two political parties are engaging in the same chicanery as fake truths become the new normal.

The impact that social networks have had on how we act and interact with others shouldn’t be a radical concept. Our cognition of how we perceive visual and aural stimuli have always impacted the world. What we read and what we watch. The advertisements fed to us over in print, over the radio, on television, and now through social media. We tend to gravitate to groups of shared beliefs. Places like Facebook is like high school all over again, only multiplied over a billion. Divisions can move forward and backward – like wooden beads on an Abacus – to meet your desired preference.

At its best, AFTER TRUTH makes it that much easier to distrust the news we are fed. At its worst, the documentary presents us with a misinformed society with no idea where to go next.

Grade: B

AFTER TRUTH is currently airing on HBO.

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