The advent of the internet has had a seismic effect on human consciousness — so it should come as no surprise that it's making us difficult to tell when something purporting to be true is in fact fake, and not real. Controversies about “fake news” abounded in the wake of the right-wing populist insurgencies of 2016, although it later became clear that the problem was much more widespread among the less internet-literate over-65s. Last week, a video purporting to show Mark Zuckerberg announcing his totalitarian vision of a Facebook-owned future helped highlight concerns about the use of AI “deepfake” technology to more effectively counterfeit the news (the technology has also been used to make fake celebrity porn).
But you don't need to understand AI to get people to believe your lies. Recently, there has been a sort of mini-trend of fanciful stories going viral on Twitter. Last month, Shane Morris, a web developer and former music blogger, posted a widely-shared account of an Epic Road Trip across America with his buddy Tyler that got even more Epic when they found a brick of heroin under the hood of their second-hand van. Morris claimed he used his cool drug connections to sell the brick, and then later sold the van back to the MS-13 guys it originally belonged to with a John Grisham novel wrapped up in foil where the heroin had been.
More recently, a Twitter user called “Sixthformpoet,” who I remember as an early-2010s numbers grifter from back when having 10k-odd followers was enough to get you a book deal (see also “Mrs Stephen Fry”), posted a tweely charming three-part story which started with him meeting his wife after accidentally putting flowers on a murderer's grave and ended with him setting up his suicidal neighbor with a homeless man his family had taken under their wing.
Hello, good morning. A ridiculous but ENTIRELY TRUE story coming up, told in three parts. Ten tweets per part so you might want to a) make a strong coffee, or b) ignore me— sixthformpoet (@sixthformpoet) June 9, 2019
Virality aside, what united the stories was a certain chummy “buckle up” tone; the clumsy exaggeration of their narrator's alleged virtues (cool/street smarts and bumbling so-very-British niceness, respectively); and of course — the fact that they were completely made-up. A few days after the MS-13 road trip story went viral, Morris came clean in a Medium post in which he explained that, as it turned out, making up a story about scamming one of North America's most notorious drug gangs was a life-ruiningly terrible idea, since now he was wanted by a bunch of guys whose slogan is literally just “Rape, Control, Kill” (although the veracity of that story was itself questioned when Morris started trying to raise money via GoFundMe to fund his disappearance). At the time of writing, no such revelation has been issued about the Sixthformpoet story, although as others have pointed out, a Google search for the murder he mentions in the story turns up... precisely nothing.
But does it even matter? In his own apology post, Morris, ever-modest, said that the reaction to the story had shown him that “I should probably be writing screenplays” instead of trying to pass his work off as something that had happened in his life. “I'm just an opportunistic asshole with a brilliant imagination,” he said. Meanwhile, other social media users have responded to the Sixthformpoet story by cooing that it should be filmed by Richard Curtis. A good story, after all, is a good story.
Fine: but there's just something I really don't like about both stories. They would work if they were true, but on the other hand, they could never possibly be true. Morris's story was a dumb pulpy romp, the sort of thing that some guy who won't stop talking to you in a bar imagines might make a good screenplay, but which, if ever filmed, no one over the age of 15 would actually enjoy. The Sixthformpoet story, meanwhile, was something even worse: a bad, pastoral romantic comedy set in a world where suffering only exists to make the good people look good.
You're playing with dark forces, though, if you start trying to insist that stuff on the internet ought to be 100 percent verifiably true. Witness the phenomenon of the “Didn't Happen Lads,” a bunch of young British men whose bios all read something like: “Josh. 23. Watford F.C.” who trawl social media looking for stories related (mostly) by young women, in order to tell them that no, this thing they're saying happened actually did not happen at all — often tagging in the account @DHOTYA (“Didn't Happen Of The Year Award”), which offers a yearly prize for the most egregious lies on social media.
There's just something I really don't like about both stories. They would work if they were true, but on the other hand, they could never possibly be true.
This phenomenon has its origins in what we might think are laudable instincts: a sincere desire to tell twee numbers-grabbing social media celebrities to shut the fuck up. And the first DHOTYA winner, in fairness, was this genuinely malignant piece of crap about some guy's blind, aging mother being applauded for voting for Brexit. But over time, the award has morphed into something far grimmer: an aggressively stupid, cloyingly cynical attempt to crush every even slightly redeeming moment of warmth or serendipity from out of an otherwise insufferably drab creation — what “Didn't Happen” is no longer the precocious remarks of centrist journalists’ Woke Toddlers, but babies bumping their ice creams together and saying “cheers”, or middle school-aged kids being minimally responsible about dog waste, i.e. things which only possibly “Didn't Happen” because... women are claiming they happened and they're nice? Perhaps we ought to let people have things like the Sixthformpoet thread — or else end up like the Didn't Happen goons.
If we are to insist on truth, this must require at least some reflection on what it means for something to be “true.” In an episode of his show Comedy Vehicle, the legendary stand-up Stewart Lee tells the story of the three weeks in 1987 when, attending Oxford as a contemporary of David Cameron, he considered the future British prime minister a friend. Lee, who is from a comfortable but unextraordinary middle-class background, was hired by the Old Etonian Cameron to book some bands for a posh student event. Somewhat starstruck, overawed by the possibility of being this close to what had seemed an unimaginable level of wealth and privilege, Lee is drawn closer and closer to the charming young Cameron and his obnoxiously moneyed Bullingdon Club circle. Anyway, long story short: this culminates with Lee being dared to drink a big bucket of piss and vomit in one gulp; with the posh boy who dared him — possibly Cameron but Lee isn't quite sure — not even bothering to stay to watch.
The story concludes with a striking line. “That story about David Cameron,” Lee tells us, finally, after laboring for 20-odd minutes in the telling, “is not true. But I feel what it tells us about David Cameron is true.” In this way, Lee's Cameron tale can be considered of a piece with other stories about prominent right-wing politicians whose truth is, at any rate, up for dispute: the story about how Cameron (again), while at Oxford, had sex with a dead pig's head; the Trump piss tape; the story about Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison known only as “Engadine Maccas”.
These stories may or may not have actually, factually “happened.” But in a way, that hardly matters at all, because what they reveal about reality is vastly more compelling than any mere “facts.” It is not always clear exactly what the story reveals; it cannot, like a fact, be analyzed into a cluster of true statements. But it has a poetic significance: David Cameron — he just did shag a dead pig's head, didn't he? Scott Morrison — he just did shit himself in a suburban McDonald's. Cameron's whole personality is shagging a dead pig's head, Morrison's entire politics is shitting himself in a suburban McDonald's.
In his 1999 statement of principles known as the “Minnesota Declaration,” Werner Herzog gave an explanation of his theory of “ecstatic truth”. Cinema Verité, Herzog tells us, deals only with “superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” “One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail.’”
In this, Herzog says, such realism “confounds facts and truth”: “Facts create norms, and truth illumination.” But luckily, against the realists, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” In his work (most notably, his documentaries), Herzog seeks this “ecstatic truth”: to reflect reality not how it is on the surface, but how it is on a deep level, beyond the façade of what we merely perceive.
Of course this is difficult, and can go wrong — it can stray into a sort of dishonesty that it is impossible to even contest by means of verification. But when it works, it can tell us something we are unable to reach by means of engagement with surface reality alone — the essential truth, for instance, of engaging with British politics being like a posh teenager disinterestedly daring you to drink a big bucket of vomit and piss.
“Life in the oceans must be sheer hell,” Herzog concludes. “A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species — including man — crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”
This what bothers me about those fake viral Twitter stories. They lack anything like ecstatic truth; they don't reflect or reveal any reality deeper than what they describe. In this, they have only facts — and of course, as it turns out, they don’t even have that. If the stories had never posed as true, they would not have gone viral in the slightest. Like A Million Little Pieces or the hoax misery memoirs of JT Leroy, these stories need — regardless of any other formal accomplishments — to pose as true in order to make an impact on their audience. (Once you realize it’s not true, the Morris thread is literally just a guy saying: “Oh, and then this happened! And then hero (who I've made up) outwitted the drug dealers — wow! And he got away with it! Juh? How cool!”). Likewise, the Didn't Happen lads seem determined to reduce all truth to mere facts, completely blind to the possibility that there could be more to the world than that — they don't care about ecstatic truth at all.
The internet is causing more and more fake things to leak into our consciousness every day. But this is only really a problem if the fakes don't contribute anything to our understanding of the world. We need to stop asking: is this true? We must instead ask: supposing this is true... what is its truth worth?