There’s a lot of misinformation being perpetuated and a lack of empirical evidence to back it up. Such is life for the last thousands of years ad infinitum.
But the fact of the matter is that we’re encountering increasing grey zones of truth as media and the viral world lead us into an exhaustion of information and confusion.
The Washington Post recently reported that our old friend Google has developed technology that can rank the “truthfulness” of information on the web.
The implications of this are potentially devastating — the largest search engine in the world (80% of the market and growing) destined to control the determination between truth and fiction? Independent thought and research annihilated in a millisecond internet search.
Perhaps this underscores the even more basic human problem surrounding the subjectivity of “truth” and whose story and perspective become the authoritative truth. This is the underlying issue behind the writing of history and anthropological research as well as the challenge faced by documentaries and biopics alike.
Over the past month I’ve had alternating experiences with responsibility and truth-telling in film and the importance of being able to decide for oneself where the truth lies (no pun intended!).
Last weekend I attended the Full Frame Documentary Film Fest in Durham, NC. This was the 18th year for the festival — more than 100 documentaries were screened over four days. It is an amazing event of exceptional films and audiences, where many of the documentary filmmakers openly discuss how they struggle to structure their films in a way that responsibly portrays their subject — while simultaneously recognizing that no film is every completely free from bias.
Walking this edge of truth-telling is challenging but well worth the thought-provoking discussions that result. Such is the case with the film Deep Web that was screened at the Full Frame fest this year. This documentary tells the stories behind the online black market Silk Road and the ongoing trial of Ross Ulbricht. The film does a good job of illuminating the pressing issues of web anonymity, privacy, digital rights, and the fourth amendment. It does an even better job of demonstrating how completely flawed our criminal justice system has become and how far the federal government will go to manipulate truths in pursuit of their goals. While I have not yet finalized my truth from the information presented, the film encouraged me to think further about the many issues it grapples with. To my mind, this is the type of responsible filmmaking that documentarians must aspire to.
Conversely, the much-anticipated Hendrix biopic released in late 2014, All is By My Side, took extreme liberties with telling the story of Jimi Hendrix’s rise to fame in London in the late 1960s. The director goes so far as to include a fictionalized scene of extreme violence when Jimi bashes his girlfriend multiple times over the head with a pay phone in a pub (see this Guardian article). The former girlfriend who is portrayed as the victim, Kathy Etchingham, vehemently denies any such violence ever took place. In interviews following the release of the film, Kathy points out how such a blatantly fictionalized scene has the potential to negatively affect Hendrix’s legacy, pointing out that this image of violence will “just get repeated and repeated and it’ll become the truth.” This is the type of irresponsible filmmaking that demonstrates just how incredibly quickly truth can be shaped by an insidious fiction.
Taking the above examples to heart it seems that Google’s “truthfulness” index could easily become a tool for fascism — all in a millisecond blink of an eye.